Few Attend Exide Meeting On Residential Cleanup Plan

June 30, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

East and southeast Los Angeles County residents had an opportunity Saturday to have a say in the process to decontaminate their homes and other properties tainted with lead from the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon, in what is expected to be California’s largest cleanup effort ever.

However, while more than 100,000 people may have been put at risk from the toxic exposure, only about a dozen people showed up to the first meeting where their comments on how to go about removing the contamination from their homes would actually be on the record.

Lea este artículo en Español: Pocos Residentes Asisten a Reunión de Limpieza Residencial de Exide

For some residents, Saturday’s meeting at Raul R. Perez Memorial Park in Huntington Park was the first Exide-related meeting they had ever attended. For others, it was the first time they would hear that their homes and families could possibly be in danger from exposure to cancer-causing arsenic and lead.

Lucia Kikunaga of Maywood told officials from the Department of Toxic Substance Control she was stunned when she received the mailer informing her of the meeting and that there could possibly be toxic chemicals in her home.

Kikunaga’s revelation was surprising given that there have been dozens of meetings and hearings over the last two years regarding the health hazard caused by the battery recycling plan in Vernon. Hundreds of hours of testimony and protests have taken place to date.

Of the handful of residents who spoke Saturday, a majority expressed concern over what they claim is a lack of outreach to their community.

“Public outreach is a key component in our efforts to keep the community informed about the Exide cleanup,” DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax told EGP, responding to the criticism. “We use a variety of methods to communicate in both English and Spanish.”

The state agency has sent out thousands of postcards, canvassed neighborhoods, set up drop-in information centers, a hotline and used social media to reach out to residents in the impacted areas, he added.

Yet, Kikunaga wasn’t the only person at the meeting to say they were unaware of the Exide catastrophe or efforts to clean up the aftermath.

An Exide scoping meeting was held in Huntington Park Saturday Very few residents were in attendance. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

An Exide scoping meeting was held in Huntington Park Saturday Very few residents were in attendance. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“I always knew there was major pollution in our communities because we live in an industrial area, but this is very serious,” longtime Maywood resident Zoila Flores said in disbelief.
DTSC plans to test the soil of 10,000 properties within 1.7-miles of the Exide plant and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead by July 2018. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), before cleanup can begin DTSC must prepare an environmental impact report that will disclose the potential effects of mitigation efforts such as soil removal and transporting tainted material away from properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon.

On Saturday, it was clear that residents like Leonor Casillas still need basic information before they can begin to give input into what the cleanup process should look like.

Casillas told DTSC staff she had no idea there could be lead in the backyard of her Maywood home. She’s worried there may be a correlation with her husband’s cancer.

“What are the health impacts? And what else is going on in our area,” she asked Saturday.
DTSC, the lead regulatory agency charged with the cleanup, has already tested more than 2,000 homes and cleaned up over 200 homes within the preliminary investigation area, according to the agency. Residents from surrounding areas have repeatedly asked that DTSC expand the area where they are testing properties for lead, claiming the danger is much wider spread.

A second meeting to gather input from the public will be held today, June 30 at 6:30p.m at Commerce City Hall.

The EIR process, which involves public review, meetings and hearings, is expected to be completed around July 2017, a timeline state officials call “aggressive.” EIRs tend to take at least a year and a half, says DTSC’s Kimberly Hudson.

“It is common to extend the public review period,” she added, meaning the process could go longer if community members feel more input is required.

In the meantime, Flores told DTSC they should not forget about impacted areas like Maywood, just because it’s home to a large Latino and undocumented population,

“With so much effort we have been paying for our homes,” she said about the struggle to buy a home. “When it comes to selling our homes, what is going to happen,” she asked, worried the contamination could cause her home value to drop.

“Some of us are scared because we don’t know what the cleanup process is and we don’t want our properties taken from us,” echoed Manuel Borjas, referring to the fear among some residents that the process could lead to them losing their homes through eminent domain or being forced to leave their homes for a long period.

DTSC officials, however, assured Borjas and others in the room that the cleanup process takes less than 5 days and homes would not be damaged or taken through eminent domain.

“Well I don’t see any of that in your packet,” responded Borjas. “That is very important information for the people in my community who are not here because they are scared,” he said.

Looking around the room and seeing so few residents present, Kikunaga told EGP that residents must to do their part to hold the state accountable.

“I know nuestra raza, I tried to encourage my neighbors to attend and some just don’t care.”

Exide: From Brownfield to Classroom

April 28, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

East and southeast Los Angeles County area residents could soon be trained to test for environmental damages like those in their own backyard.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control plans in coming months to roll out a job and development training program open to residents living in the areas impacted by lead contamination from the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

“This is truly a unique program and a first for DTSC,” says Ana Mascarenas, assistant director for environmental justice and tribal affairs for DTSC. For once, the “local community can benefit directly and be a part of restorative justice,” Mascarenas told EGP.

The $176.6 million Exide cleanup package signed by Gov. Brown last week includes $1.2 million to train local groups and residents in skills required to take part in the testing and cleanup process.

DTSC, the state regulatory agency overseeing the Exide cleanup, is currently consulting with experts in the job-training field to develop its program, and they will solicit input from the community during an Exide Advisory Committee meeting being held today.

Mascarenas told EGP that DTSC plans to model its program after the California Environmental Protection Agency’s, CalEPA, Brownfields Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, which has prepared local residents to clean up contaminated properties while at the same time preparing them for careers in environmental remediation.

“We want this program to prepare residents for green jobs that will help to immediately clean up the neighborhood, while providing a long term [positive] impact for the community’s economy,” Mascarenas said.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s 53rd District includes many of the communities polluted by Exide, and he is the author of the bill funding the Exide cleanup and training program. He told EGP that creating jobs in the state’s third poorest district was an important consideration.

“The least the state can do is offer jobs to the community it dumped on for decades,” he said.

“The community is in desperate need of jobs and must be cleaned up,” he said, explaining the dual benefit to communities like Boyle Heights and Vernon.

The idea to include a clause promoting the use of local businesses and to give local residents the skills needed to be part of the decontamination effort is the results of hours spent listening to constituents testify at Exide-related public hearings, explained Santiago.

“When money is expended, I want to make sure it is expended in the impacted district and used to provide local jobs,” he told EGP.

While details for the training program are still in the works, it’s likely those who sign up will have to commit 12 to 16 weeks to the program, which will include lead awareness classes, certifications and exposure to tools used for remediation.

“These certificates will not be exclusive to just Exide,” said Mascarenas, “they can apply these skills to DTSC cleanup sites across the state.”

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples.  (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Completing the training, however, is not a guarantee for employment, emphasized DTSC, although DTSC and state legislators will stress the importance of hiring those trained through the program to the contractors hired to cleanup residential properties, clarified Mascarenas.

Mark Lopez, executive director for East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP the community wants reassurance local hiring is not just promoted but required.

East Yards, together with other community activists, have drafted language detailing their ideal local hire and workforce development program, including a demand that at least 50 percent of all jobs created directly or indirectly by the cleanup effort be performed by local hires, with 20 percent specifically set aside for low-income residents.

Training will vary by position. Some groups will simply be trained to do outreach, something DTSC has been doing for months.

Members of East Yards, for example, have already been going door to door in the communities surrounding the Exide plant to get the access agreements needed to test for lead.

“We want to understand the intimate details involved with the clean up so that we can communicate that to the community,” explained Lopez explained.

Lopez told EGP he would like to see students from the YouthBuild Charter Schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles benefit from the program. As a dropout recovery school, students at YouthBuild often suffer from learning disabilities, circumstances surrounding violence and issues that can be correlated to exposure to lead, he pointed out DTSC expects to have cleaned up 250 homes by June, using funds previously obtained from Exide and the state. The agency is waiting on the results of a still to be conducted environmental impact report before it continues with the cleanup of 2,500 additional homes, hopefully beginning sometime next spring.

Over 40 eastside residents have already been trained and certified to operate the XRF devices being used to sample soil on properties near Exide.

DTSC says it wants to have hundreds of local residents trained and ready to start when remediation, which could take at last two years, gets underway. Soil testing will continue in the meantime, Mascarenas said.

The Exide plant was permanently closed March 2015 after operating for decades on a temporary permit, even after repeatedly being found to have exposed more than 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals and collecting dozens of hazardous waste violations.

“In many ways, this will help to remediate the damage done to the community,” acknowledges Lopez.

Exide Advisory Group Assembles

June 4, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

For the past couple of years, Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights has been the epicenter of the movement to close down the Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon, a role it continued to play last week as host to the first meeting of a new advisory committee charged with overseeing closure of the controversial facility and the cleanup of lead and arsenic contamination left in its wake.

The May 28 meeting had all the trappings of a traditional city council or commission meeting, including the requisite agenda, minutes and following of parliamentary procedure.

Gone were the loud protests and chants of past meetings in the Church Hall.

In many ways, it was a solid step into the future for a community that had long felt marginalized by state pollution regulators.

The inagural meeting of the Exide Advisory Group was held May 28 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.  (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

The inagural meeting of the Exide Advisory Group was held May 28 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

“This is where partnership begins,” Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said enthusiastically at the inaugural meeting of the Exide Advisory Group.

At 37 members, the unusually large committee is made up of people representing the community, regulatory agencies and elected officials. Because the impacted community is so large, we felt that a larger number of committee members was appropriate, said DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax.

The committee is scheduled to meet once a month to review specifics of the closure process, and to raise questions as they did last week on such things as where toxic soil will be moved. Committee members are the liaison between the community and state regulators performing the day-to-day work on the cleanup of toxic chemicals at the plant and in surrounding communities.

“Now we have the tools and all the stakeholders involved…you really can bring about change” Lee told the group.

The advisory committee was formed in response to an avalanche of negative public opinion resulting from DTSC’s poor response to the community’s concerns about the toxic chemicals illegally spewing from the now-closed Vernon plant.

Lee, who took over the top DTSC post just a few months ago, pledged earlier this year to ensure the community would have its say in the future. The advisory committee helps Lee make good on that promise.

DTSC Deputy Director Jim Marxen said the committee’s work is intended to compliment the public hearings that will take place. They will give the community another opportunity to voice their concerns during the closure process, he said.

“The group will be involved early on in the process” … helping to bring about change and “save each other time” by “communicating the needs of the community,” Marxen said.

Advisory committee members are expected to come prepared to share ideas and provide comment on closure and cleanup related materials, and preparation of documents needed to comply with CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.

“We have never demolished a facility of this risk,” pointed out Jane Williams of Desert Citizens Against Pollution, referring to the magnitude of the hazardous waste cleanup

First, however, the group must hire a technical advisor to explain the large volume of technical data committee members will be asked to review before they take action.

The committee must also select a community co-chair to join Lee and South Coast Air Quality Management District Director Barry Wallerstein in moderating the meetings and setting the tone for discussions.

Looking around the room last week, Mark Lopez with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice pointed out that only a quarter of the committee’s 37 members do not represent either a public official or public agency.

“It’s a little concerning,” he said.

But according to Lee, over a third of the committee’s members are from the community.

“We really tried to be inclusive,” she said. “I want the group to be effective,” she said, explaining why she does not think it a good idea to add more people to the committee.

Last Thursday’s meeting demonstrated that the group reflects many points of view, and that members are willing to speak frankly about our work, said Nax.

Marxen told committee members that they are tasked with communicating and educating their respective constituencies about the closure process, which formally started in April.

The permanent shut down comes following years of hazardous waste violations by Exide that exposed over 110,000 people in neighborhoods and cities from East Los Angels to Maywood to toxic levels of arsenic and lead, chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological disorders, learning disabilities and other health issues.

In March, the U.S. Attorney’s office struck a deal with Exide that would allow the company and executives to avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for the permanent closure of the Vernon plant and total cleanup of the site and properties found to have been contaminated.

The first phase of closure which will include the demolishing of buildings, is expected to take between 19 to 22 months, according to DTSC.

The next advisory meeting will take place some time in June in the city of Maywood. Meetings are open to the public.

Exide Residential Cleanup Continues

December 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

On the quiet block of La Puerta Avenue in Boyle Heights, a small bobcat bulldozer was in high gear last week, removing dirt from homes where high levels of lead were found.

At least one hundred wheelbarrows of tainted soil were removed from two homes on the block early Thursday, part of an ongoing effort to clean up contamination residents and toxic chemical experts say are tied to emissions from Exide Technologies in Vernon.

“How many years have gone by and we didn’t even know the damage [Exide] was doing,” said Jovita Morales, one of the homeowners whose soil was removed.

The South Coast Air Quality Management Department in 2013 found several times that emissions from Exide had higher than safe levels of arsenic and lead, increasing the risk of cancer and neurological deficits to as many 110,00 residents living near the acid-lead battery recycler.

DTSC workers remove contaminated soil from a home in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC workers remove contaminated soil from a home in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

State regulators have ordered Exide to make major changes to pollution control systems at its Vernon plant, and to pay for the clean up contamination at homes like those on La Puerta Avenue.

While not admitting any culpability, Exide agreed to pay for blood lead tests for area residents who are concerned about their exposure. Testing, conducted by the county health department, started in  April. So far, only 450 people have taken advantage of the free blood tests, but none those tested “required medical intervention,” according to the county. The low number of tests has prompted the testing period to be extended for the second time until Jan. 30, according to county health officials.

Earlier this year, state regulators identified 215 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood as having the highest likelihood of being impacted by Exide emissions. The Dept. of Toxic Chemical Substance Control, DTSC, ordered the company to pay for soil testing and more recently to put $9 million into a fund to be used to clean up all 215 homes.

As of Monday, only 104 of those homes had been tested, according to DTSC. Nineteen of the homes were labeled priority one, the highest priority based on lead levels found and whether there are children or pregnant women living in the home. Priority one homes will cleaned first, according to DTSC, which says it will continue to reach out to property owners to encourage them to get their properties tested.

DTSC Director of Communications Jim Marxen told EGP the state agency wants the process to go as quickly as possible, and has asked Exide to clean up 2.5 homes a week.

“We believe Exide is responsible” for remediating the damage, he said.

Marxen pointed out that [the plant] has been operating since 1920, nearly 100 years.

“For that extended period of time, this [assessment area] is probably the place their emissions ended up,” he said.

[Addendum: It should be pointed out that the Vernon plant itself has existed since 1920, however Exide Technologies has only been operating the plant since 2000.]

Lea este artículo en Español: Exide Continúa LImpieza en Hogares Cercanos

The two residential properties on La Puerta Avenue, which sits near the industrial side of town on the border of East Los Angeles, are the latest homes to be cleaned. Soil was removed from two homes in August; one in Maywood the other also on La Puerta Avenue.

“We are aiming to get at least five homes [clean] before the holidays,” said Marxen. “Our target is to get a least 10 to 12 homes cleaned by the third week of January,” he added.

But getting residents to sign up to get their soil tested has proven difficult, says Marxen.

Though there could be a number of reasons why testing is not complete in the assessment area, many residents may find themselves in the same situation as longtime resident Jose Ornelas, 79, who has rented the La Puerta Avenue house where he lives for 28 years.

“There was some confusion because the letters they sent were addressed to me,” he said in Spanish.

If it had not been for Ornelas contacting the owner, soil on the property would not have been tested last month.

Lucia Flores, 72, said she initially didn’t want to go through the process of having her soil tested because she wasn’t sure what would be expected of her as a homeowner.

“It took me a long time to grow these plants for someone to just come and cut them,” she half-jokingly said.

However, once the soil is tested, the results are analyzed and labeled as priority one, two, three or below threshold, says Marxen. So far all 104 homes tested have been above the allowed threshold, he added. According to DTSC, 19 homes were labeled priority one, 35 priority two and 31 priority three.

DTSC will meet with the residents at least three times to explain the test results and set up a cleaning schedule, which includes soil replacement, dust control measures, air monitoring and yard restoration that includes keeping plants deemed sensitive by the owner.

Residents do not have to be at their home while the weeklong clean up takes place, in fact they can opt to stay elsewhere at Exide’s expense, according to DTSC.

On Monday, Flores said she is waiting for the results of tests conducted back in October.

“I worry about my granddaughter who lives here,” she said in Spanish, as she watered the plants in her yard. “I have heard the [Exide] plant is bad for our health,” she said.

Exide’s Vernon plant has been closed since March as it installs enhanced systems to comply with California’s air quality standards. The company has invested $35 million on environmental, health and safety measures since 2010.

“We recognize the community’s concerns and are confident the Department’s tough new order provides strong regulatory oversight for cleaning the identified residential properties,” said Thomas Strang, Vice President of Environment Health and Safety for Exide.

“Exide is committed to operating a premier recycling facility and working collaboratively with regulators to perform all work necessary to reach his goal,” he said.

Marxen told EGP the agency hopes the visibility of the cleanup will encourage neighbors to get their yards sampled.

Morales saw the clean up taking place back in August and though about contacting DTSC out of concern for her grandchildren, ages nine and four months, who live in the home.

“We just never got around to doing it because we get home from work late,” she said. “A lot of my neighbors may be in denial, but this clean up is good for the residents.”

The cleanup up cost per property will vary according to the amount of soil to be removed and property type.

If there are still funds left in the $9 million community trust fund after the initial group targeted for testing is completed, the remaining money will go towards expanding testing and cleaning beyond the original assessment area, and for testing of commercial properties in areas adjacent to the Vernon plant.

“Wherever we find contamination that we can link to Exide we are going to make them clean it up,” said Marxen.

 

Residents in the two assessment areas can contact DTSC for information about cleanup at (844) 225-3887.  

 

[Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Jim Marxen simply as DTSC Director.]

 

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