Public Blasts DTSC at State Committee Hearing

June 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

When the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials first held a hearing on the decontamination of the now shuttered Exide Technologies facility, eastside residents made a turnaround trip to the Capitol where they demanded state legislators step up and push for funds needed to address the cleanup. Five months later, with $176.6 million now set aside by Gov. Brown for the cleanup effort, it was the Committee’s turn to pay residents, which they did last week, holding their meeting not far from the Vernon plant.

As is customary, officials from the state, county and city of Los Angeles updated the committee on their respective cleanup efforts and community outreach. But residents who live in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Vernon and Huntington Park – areas believed to be contaminated with lead and arsenic – told the committee that those reports were not giving legislators a full picture of what’s really going on.

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council President Vera Del Pozo said she was tired of hearing officials and DTSC go talk about things the community has heard repeatedly.

“Stop telling us what you’ve done and just clean this up now,” she said, prompting applause from the audience.

One after another, residents renewed their calls for a quicker, more efficient remediation process, starting with a cleanup plan they said should have already been completed.

“There are many ongoing and serious problems that need to be addressed,” said Gladys Limon, staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment during the assembly committee’s meeting at Roosevelt High School.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the approval of the cleanup plan. The agency, charged with overseeing the investigation and remediation of the 1.7-mile preliminary investigation area, is soliciting input from the public before drafting the cleanup plan.

The public comment period begins June 16 and will continue for 30 days, ending July 18. Once the draft impact report is completed the public will have 45 days to review the document and provide comments that will be used to prepare the final report. Two scoping meetings to gather public comment are planned for June 25 at Perez Park in Huntington Park and June 30 at Commerce City Hall.

 Students from Bell Gardens High School attend a public hearing held June 9 at Roosevelt High School, where dozens of residents called for greater oversight of the Exide cleanup. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Students from Bell Gardens High School attend a public hearing held June 9 at Roosevelt High School, where dozens of residents called for greater oversight of the Exide cleanup. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee explained that under the current CEQA timeline, cleanup, which could end up being the largest in the state’s history, would not begin until June 2017.

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, urged legislators to force DTSC to expand the investigation area to 4.5 miles, a demand repeated by dozens of residents living just outside the zone.

“We’re leaving people behind,” Williams stressed.

Roosevelt student Michael Valencia said he lives two blocks from the meeting site, yet his home and the school itself are outside the preliminary cleanup area.

Dr. Brian Johnston, chair of emergency medicine at White Memorial, asked that the agency do more soil sampling beyond the 1.7 miles. He cited a 2010 study conducted by the Air Quality Management District that stated Exide’s cloud of toxins could reach as far as Altadena and Palos Verdes.

Lee explained that results from soil samples collected as far as 4.5 miles from the Vernon plant led the agency to conclude lead emissions could have traveled 1.7 miles from the facility. She reminded the committee that the state’s multi-million loan can only be used to address remediation in that area.

Many residents, however, complained that the agency’s report was a repeat of an “infomercial” they’ve heard many times before, and even argued that DTSC lacks the expertise to carry out the cleanup.

“[The problem] is bigger than what they’re trying to paint,” said a frustrated Joe Gonzalez.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who sat in for committee members unable to attend, said that many of the community’s complaints are valid.

“We need to expand the area,” she told EGP. “We definitely need to do that.”

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who also sat in on the committee, told EGP he expects the committee to include what was discussed at last week’s meeting in an end of the year report on all the hearings.

“This is one more example of us being more inclusive,” Santiago said. “It demonstrates legislators are taking this seriously, putting pressure and holding DTSC accountable.”

Garcia told EGP she plans to use the public testimony to ask the agency better questions.

“We get regular updates from DTSC but it is through their eyes and their perspective,” she said.

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis reminded legislators that more funds would be required to not only decontaminate the area but to also educate the community about the dangers of lead exposure, known to cause neurological diseases, learning disabilities, cancer and other serious health problems.

“This can’t happen again,” Solis said of the contamination. “There needs to be an investigation.”

Lee defended herself and the agency, reminding the committee and the public that in April 2013 Exide was ordered to suspend operations and in March 2015, months after she took over as director, the plant was forced to close permanently.

Since then, 1,800 homes have been sampled, 3,400 access agreements have been signed and over 200 homes have been decontaminated, she said, adding DTSC currently samples 135 properties a week but expects to increase to 200 per week in the coming month.

“We have much to do but we have made progress,” said Lee.

In the minority, one resident thanked the agency for cleaning her East Los Angeles home. But most residents felt their demands and frustration were justified.

“Just because we are asking for more doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge what you have already done,” said Boyle Heights resident Irene Peña.

Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, told EGP the group encountered problems while working with the agency to gather access agreements, an effort they do not plan to continue.

“We have had to push every step of the way to get to the point we are at now,” he said. “It is time for DTSC to step up and accept the challenge to do better.”

Demands to Expand Exide Test Area Grow

May 5, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

At the first public hearing since the governor signed legislation to appropriate $176.6 million for the testing and cleanup of residential properties surrounding the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, residents were not jumping for joy or thanking state regulators. Instead, they were tired, frustrated and irked that testing for lead has not been expanded further into east and southeast L.A.

A number of residents testified in support of extending the 1.7-mile cleanup zone to 4.5 miles, getting support from DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Committee, which voted last Thursday to recommend expanding the testing area and to appoint an independent third party to oversee the cleanup.

It is not clear what practical impact the vote will have, but in a statement to EGP, the Department of Toxic Substances Control explained that the agency had set the 1.7 mile testing boundary based on preliminary analysis of soil data, which found that lead emissions from Exide may have traveled 1.3 to 1.7 miles from the facility.

“DTSC appreciates the input of the committee, which was set up to advise DTSC as we move forward,” the agency’s statement says.

Clara Solis lives just outside the 1.7 testing area: Last week she presented DTSC with a petition signed by area residents demanding the testing area be expanded.

“You really don’t know what you are doing because you haven’t tested those areas,” said the East Los Angeles resident.

Rachel Vermillion, who frequents public hearings for the SR-710 extension project, complained her community is constantly bypassed.

A study released last month by the Department of Public Health found that children who live near the Vernon plant have higher levels of lead in their blood.

According to the study, 3.58 percent of young children who live within a mile of the plant had 4.5 micrograms of lead in their blood; children living 1 to 4.5 miles from the plant had 2.41 to 4.5 micrograms or higher levels of lead. According to the Center for Disease Control even low levels of lead can affect IQ and academic achievement. The agency believes there are no safe blood lead level for children.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, center, discusses blood lead levels during a meeting April 28 in Commerce.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, center, discusses blood lead levels during a meeting April 28 in Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Of the 10,000 or so properties in that preliminary investigation area, 213 properties have already been cleaned. State funds will be used to test all 10,000 properties and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead.

Jim Wells, technical advisor to DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Group, previously stated he believes the contamination goes beyond the 1.7 miles boundary. That would mean millions of people at risk and tens of thousands of additional properties contaminated.

“…To better understand what the conditions really are,” more “robust” data must be collected, Wells said.

One Bell Gardens High School student wanted to know if schools were informed that the area has one of the highest number of children with lead in their blood.

Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez accused DTSC of “minimizing the amount of blood that’s safe in the body.

“The safe level of lead in the body is zero,” he said.

Huntington Park resident Maria Kennedy is a member of Communities for a Better Environment.

She told the committee she felt DTSC was downplaying the Dept. of Public Health’s blood level report. “Homes should be tested for lead regardless if Exide is responsible,” she said. “We should be thinking about the high levels of lead in children and secure funding” to handle the problem, Kennedy said.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee responded that the state has stepped up to the plate, approving a multi-million dollar funding plan. Lee said she needs to demonstrate those funds are being used properly before attempting to secure more money.

“The state has never put forward that kind of money, it’s going to keep us busy for the next couple of years,” she added.

But Teresa Marquez of Boyle Heights feels money should not be the concern.

“We may not have the money but we need to know” the extent of the problem, she said. “How can you get more money if you can’t prove the need?”

Contamination must surely reach Bell Gardens, said Xugo Lujan with East Yards for Environmental Justice. “It’s not like it reaches Atlantic and drops to the floor,” he said pointing to the map. Jorge Lara, another Bell Gardens student demanded to know if homes outside the 1.7-mile radius would be tested. He never got an answer.

Noel Pimentel of Commerce said the city’s residents who were incorporated into the testing area last summer are still waiting for test results.

Commerce Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo asked Lee why homes with young children and pregnant women are no longer considered first priority given the agency’s previous assertions that they would be a top priority for cleanup even if their soil tested less than 1000 ppm.

“We’re confused and residents are upset,” she complained. “They were told they would be priority one and now they are being told they are priority two.”

Lee did not directly respond but assured that the agency plans to decontaminate 2,500 homes with lead levels of 1,000 ppm or higher.

Dozens of Commerce families signed up to have their blood tested for lead during a ‘Cinco de Mayo’ event at Bristow Park Sunday.   (City of Commerce)

Dozens of Commerce families signed up to have their blood tested for lead during a ‘Cinco de Mayo’ event at Bristow Park Sunday.
(City of Commerce)

According to Lee, DTSC is developing a new system to prioritize properties for cleanup. Lee said DTSC does take the risk of exposure into consideration.

“There’s just too many in one bin,” she pointed out, hedging her remarks.

Not satisfied with Lee’s response, Rebollo pushed the director to explain how the agency plans to address possible contamination at schools.

Schools have not tested as high as residential properties, responded Lee.

Testing results will be available to schools in the coming weeks, and could be made public if the school district approves, according to Su Patel, DTSC site project manager.

“I find it contradictory that you say children are a priority when you don’t have a plan in place for schools,” criticized Rebollo.

Lee reiterated that expanding the testing area from 200 homes to 10,000 properties requires a change in the three-bin prioritization process.

“We need more bins,” she said. “We can’t have 2,000 in first place because we won’t know where to start.”

Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards and the advisory group’s community chairperson, closed the nearly four-hour long meeting by saying elected officials and state regulators must understand there is still a long way to go.

“There seems to be a growing frustration during meetings that comes from folks taking credit when the cameras show up, when we get the money, but when there is critique, those folks want to act” like everything they are hearing is new.

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation to Fund Exide Clean-Up

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation today providing $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods surrounding the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon.

“Children should be able to play in yards free from toxics,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re doubling down on efforts to protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”

State officials said the funding would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.

There was no immediate word on when the effort would begin or how long it would take. The cleanup effort is subject to an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Assembly Majority Whip Miguel Santiago applauded Gov. Brown for signing the Exide Clean-Up Package comprised of Assembly Bill 118 and Senate Bill 93.

“The Exide Technologies facility has been able to pollute my community unabated for more than 33 years, which is entirely inexcusable,” said Santiago, author of AB 118.

“Today’s action is an historic step toward fully resolving this appalling situation; but make no mistake – our work is not done here.”

The Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, called for a fast start to the state’s cleanup efforts.

“We’ve heard the distressing news recently that children living near the closed Exide plant had elevated blood lead levels so there’s no time to waste,” he said. “… I will continue working closely with state and local partners so that the testing and cleanup of homes moves forward expeditiously
and above all, in partnership with the families impacted by the lead contamination. We shouldn’t lose focus of what’s at stake here – restoring a clean and safe environment for our families.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti released a Spanish-language public service announcement, also featuring actress Angelica Vale, urging residents near the plant to have their property tested, and to undergo blood-lead level testing.

“My office will do everything possible to help the (Department of Toxic Substances Control) expedite the cleanup,” Garcetti said. “Identifying the areas and the people affected by lead contamination is a critical first step.”

The city of Commerce, in conjunction with the County health department, will be conducting free confidential lead blood testing at Rosewood Park from 9a.m. to 3p.m. during the annual Kids Are Cute Baby Show. The park is located at 5600 Harbor St. Commerce 90040. For more information, call (323) 722-4805.

EGP staff writers contributed to this report.

Study Finds Children Living Near Exide Have Higher Levels of Lead in Blood

April 8, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Children who live near the former Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon have higher levels of lead in their blood than those who live farther away, according to a report released today by state health officials, who said the age of the homes the children live in was also a
contributing factor.

The study performed by the state Department of Public Health at the request of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, found that children under age 6 who lived near the plant were likely to have more lead in their blood than children in Los Angeles County overall.

According to the study, 3.58 percent of young children who live within a mile of the plant had levels of 4.5 micrograms of lead or more per deciliter of blood. Among children who lived between one and 4.5 miles of the plant, 2.41 percent had 4.5 micrograms or more, the study found.

By comparison, only 1.95 percent of children countywide had such levels of lead in their blood in 2012, state officials said.

According to DTSC, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers 5 micrograms or greater to be an indicator of significantly high lead levels requiring public health action. California’s baseline, however, is 4.5 micrograms.

Although the study focused on proximity to the plant, researchers found that the age of housing was a contributing factor to lead levels, noting that homes closer to the facility tend to be older. The age of housing is significant, since lead levels in paint were not regulated until 1978.

According to the study, 3.11 percent of young children living near Exide in homes built before 1940 had elevated blood lead levels, while only 1.87 percent of children near the plant in homes built after 1940 had elevated levels.

The Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed spending $176.6 million for further testing
and environmental cleanup of the area surrounding the plant. The state Senate approved the funding on Thursday. The issue will now go before the Assembly.

State officials said the funding would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.

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