Assembly Questions Actions on Exide

January 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Years of public outrage over the Exide Technologies’ contamination of cities and neighborhoods in the east and southeast Los Angeles area finally appears to be getting the attention of state legislators, likely in response to growing accusations that California has a double standard when it comes to how it handles environmental and health emergencies in low-income Latino communities.

On Tuesday, the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials held a hearing in Sacramento on plans to decontaminate the site of the now shuttered battery-recycling facility in Vernon believed to have contaminated as many as 10,000 homes and business with lead and arsenic, putting over 100,000 people at a higher-risk for neurological diseases and cancer.

Lea este artículo en Español: Asamblea Cuestiona las Acciones de Exide

It was the first hearing by state elected officials since protests over the plant’s repeated violations of toxic chemical emissions standards became public in 2013.

As EGP first reported, residents from East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Bell and Huntington Park have grown increasingly frustrated and angry over the “double standard” they’ve observed in the treatment of the mostly-white, affluent Porter Ranch gas leak and the blue collar, and the predominately Latino communities affected by Exide’s lead contamination.

“Maybe we should call ourselves Boyle Heights Ranch, maybe we’ll get more attention,” Rev. Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church told the committee on Tuesday.

At a press conference before the hearing, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Speaker-elect Sen. Anthony Rendon and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago called for the state to allocate $70 million out of next year’s budget to pay for cleaning up the most contaminated residential properties.

“An invisible disease has affected these communities, this is a case of environmental injustice,” said Solis, decrying state regulators slow progress in removing soil polluted with lead from east and southeast homes. She suggested the money could be recovered later from Exide. A lawsuit could be required.

“DTSC has not done a good job on the cleanup,” said Rendon. “We need to make sure Exide cleans up the mess it has left in our communities.”

Joining the officials at the press conference and for the hearing was a busload of residents from the impacted areas. They’d traveled to the Capitol to demand the same level of action from the state that is being given to the Aliso Canyon gas leak in Porter Ranch. They told committee members that state regulators need to speed up the removal of lead tainted soil from their homes.

So far, the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has cleaned about 200 or so properties in the designated contamination zone.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Assemblyman Santiago repeatedly asked DTSC Director Barbara Lee whether there are obstacles they can address to increase the number of homes being cleaned every week. She did not respond directly to his inquiries, but said DTSC is cleaning three properties per week. At that rate, it will take seven years to clean 1,000 properties, complained other speakers.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, center, speaks before the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials in Sacramento Tuesday. (Los Angeles County)

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, center, speaks before the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials in Sacramento Tuesday. (Los Angeles County)

“We have a death sentence, we can’t wait any longer” said a tearful Terry Cano of Boyle Heights who traveled the long distance to testify. She alleged that members of her family have died of cancer caused by Exide’s polluting of her community.

Cano also expressed her frustration with the state agency’s focus on the contamination at the now vacant Exide facility instead of focusing on places where people still live.

“This is the equivalent to responding to a burning building and firefighters respond to the fire and not the dying family,” she criticized.

Resentment is growing over Gov. Jerry Brown’s failure to personally address the Exide “catastrophe,” something he has done in Porter Ranch, where he has declared a State of Emergency.

“We can blame DTSC for the handling and enforcement of Exide and for taking so long, but we can’t blame them for the governor not giving them the money to clean up the contamination,” Mark Lopez of East Yards for Environmental Justice told EGP before the hearing.

Lee defended the agency’s actions, pointing out that 22,000 hours of staff time has already been spent working on the Exide closure. She also said the Brown Administration has been very supportive of their work, allocating $7 million in state funding for testing and cleanup.

“I can assure you the governor has us all committed to this site, it’s a priority for us.” echoed Matt Rodriguez of the California EPA,

Local elected officials, however, seemed unconvinced.

“DTSC has failed our community,” Santiago said.

Concern that money is behind the state’s slow response to the clean up.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia called the $8 million in the governor’s budget for the Exide Cleanup “insulting.”

“It feels like the government is just throwing pennies at brown people to keep us quiet,” she said.

She urged the committee to recommend the state dig into the reserves if it has to, to ensure the governor allocates $70 million in this year’s budget.

“We must do the right thing and show the residents from low income communities who are predominately Latino that that they are just as important as our counterparts from affluent communities.”

Jane Williams, executive director for California Communities Against Toxics, suggested state legislators consider a battery tax to help offset costs associated with the cleanup instead of waiting for Exide to allocate funds. She told the committee the battery recycler had a long history of contamination at their plants across the country.

“Exide has a pattern and practice of contaminating communities and leaving contamination behind,” she said.

Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias testified she has spoken to many residents who are frustrated with the process and just don’t see any clear financial plan or commitment. She also expressed frustration that the committee waited until the end of the four-hour long meeting to hear from the public, the victims in the crisis.

Nearly all of those residents who traveled to Sacramento had to leave the meeting to catch their bus home, only one was left to testify.

“They’ve been waiting for too long,” she said before handing over letters from the community for the record.
Maywood Councilman Eduardo de la Riva said he did not appreciate Exide representatives at the meeting trying to shift the blame for the high levels of lead to other sources, including lead paint, nearby freeways and the industrial setting. He asked that the state agency recognize the cleanup should be their priority.

“We applaud DTSC for the steps they are now starting to take but the damage has been done,” he said. “We must act now.”

A video recording of the hearing can be viewed online at http://calchannel.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=7&clip_id=3327

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

New Tools, Players Aiding Exide Cleanup

November 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

State workers armed with a new testing tool are canvassing southeast area streets in search of properties contaminated with lead.

The XRF (X-ray fluorescent) devices quickly analyze the metals in soil samples on site, eliminating the need for lab testing and accelerating the testing of residential properties in the process, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency overseeing the clean up of toxic contamination from the now closed Exide acid-lead battery recycling plant in Vernon.

State regulators were given the go-ahead to proceed with testing during a rather testy meeting of the Exide Community Advisory Committee Oct. 28 at Commerce City Hall. Before the meeting, DTSC Director Barbara Lee told EGP the agency was ready to start testing on properties with the highest potential for lead contamination within an expanded 1.7-mile radius of the Vernon facility.

A new online application is now available for residents to request sampling at their property in the expanded north and south areas.

“The department views this cleanup as one of our highest priorities,” Lee said. “We are moving very quickly on parallel tracks to get the Exide site and the residential areas around it cleaned.”

Up to 10,000 homes may need to be tested and decontaminated. As many as two million people may be at elevated risk from their exposure to toxic levels of lead, known to cause neurological damages to children and pregnant woman. The cleanup price tag could go over $400 million.

Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities, is on the community advisory committee. He told EGP he was not surprised that DTSC has opted to do more testing before moving to clean up.

“At this point, everything with DTSC is a formula,” he said. “They take a long time to do nothing. It’s not until someone else moves forward that they come and say ‘we were going to do that.’”

He was referring to a decision by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to commit $2 million to help speed up testing. Concerns are growing that the financial settlements reached with Exide by state and federal regulators will not adequately cover the cost of the massive clean up.

DTSC has $8 million in a fund earmarked for closure and post closure costs; an $11 million surety bond and $1 million left from the $9 million fund for residential cleanup, according to DTSC officials.

Sup. Hilda Solis has called on Gov. Brown and the federal government to put up the money needed.

In Commerce, Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca has asked staff to identify city funds that could be used for soil sampling within city borders.

Lopez told EGP there’s more action going on at the local level, such as East Yard Communities volunteers going door-to-door to urge residents to get their homes tested. Volunteers report that most of the people they have spoken to say they’ve never been approached by DTSC, Lopez said.

There have been many complaints that DTSC is taking too long to clean the 170 homes already identified as having high levels of lead. Sup. Hilda Solis has been particularly critical, and last week announced that the County will conduct its own public outreach campaign in predominately immigrant neighborhoods. She said the County would send out promotoras to educate residents about blood lead testing and the importance of requesting cleanup inside their homes

Lee, however, defends testing as a vital part of the decontamination plan. She acknowledges it can be tedious, but says the agency needs the data obtained to hold Exide accountable for the cleanup.

Lopez suggested the agency should hire or train local volunteers that are more than willing to help with the cleanup.

“The folks out here just want this cleanup done,” he said.

According to DTSC, the cleanup process could be aided by local government agencies applying for money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to remediate lead-paint exposure, and they urged residents to report lead-pain inside their homes.

“That is why our partnership with Los Angeles County and cities in the areas is so important,” said Lee. “These agencies have the authority and expertise to address the paint, while we clean soils contaminated by Exide.”

Exide Batteries Still Selling in East L.A.

October 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Not too far from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, a car battery shaped sign hangs on a storefront on one of the busiest streets in East Los Angeles, proudly announcing the retailer sells Exide batteries.

The Auto Supply Company on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue is less than five miles south of the embattled acid-lead battery recycler, forced to permanently close in March after years of public outcry over its polluting of local communities and threats of criminal prosecution.

Lea este artículo en Español: Continúa la Venta de Baterías de Exide en el Este de Los Ángeles

Yet, Exide’s poor reputation on the Eastside has not translated to a loss in sales, says Ralph Fernandez, the retailer’s general manager.

According to Fernandez, news that the battery recycler had violated toxic emissions regulations, exposing 110,000 eastside residents to cancer-causing emissions, did not hurt the auto supplier’s sale of Exide batteries. Neither did the forced shut down of the plant as part of a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that allowed Exide to avoid criminal prosecution over its illegal mishandling of hazardous waste, says Fernandez.

Exide car batteries fill the shelves at The Auto Supply Company store in East Los Angeles, not far from the controversial Vernon-based plant. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Exide car batteries fill the shelves at The Auto Supply Company store in East Los Angeles, not far from the controversial Vernon-based plant. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Unless you consider sales actually increasing.

“There’s just no correlation, people just don’t care unless it affects them directly,” Fernandez said.

He also told EGP, that despite all the negative media fallout, Exide’s parent company has never written to reassure him that the closure would have no impact on their ability to continue to supply him with Exide brand car batteries, one of only three auto batteries still made in the U.S.

All they sent was a letter saying the Vernon plant was closing, Fernandez explained.

Fernandez said he’s confident the batteries will continue to sell at the East L.A. store, despite being a stone throws away from the epicenter of environmental groups condemning the company.

There’s a misconception out there among some that because the Exide plant is contaminated with lead, the company’s car batteries are also contaminated, but that’s simply not true, Fernandez said.

“Lead acid is not in the air during the oxidizing process” when the battery is made, Fernandez explained. It’s only a problem during the recycling process, he said. Exide currently manufactures batteries at its plants in Missouri, Idaho and Kansas.

The store, located in East L.A. since 1969, has been selling Exide batteries for about 15 years. Fernandez said Exide put up the outdoor sign to help the retailer advertise the batteries.

However, the Auto Supply Company is not the only local supplier selling Exide batteries. They can be found at major retailers like Home Depot, and other national and independent auto supply stores and tire shops in southeast and eastside communities.

Consumers find Exide’s “Made in the USA” branding and moderate price attractive. It’s even the official battery for Nascar.

A business in East Los Angeles proudly advertises the Exide car batteries sold inside. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A business in East Los Angeles proudly advertises the Exide car batteries sold inside. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Angel Campos, 44, was at the store Tuesday to purchase car parts. He told EGP he is concerned about a company that does not protect its consumers and contaminates the environment. But when looking to buy a car battery, other priorities come into play.

“I look for a battery with a brand that has a good reputation for making well-performing batteries,” he said in Spanish while standing outside the store.

Fernandez said he thought twice about selling the batteries, but decided to continue selling them since only one customer has ever brought it to his attention.

Nieve Villegas told EGP she doesn’t know what brand of batter her car uses; that’s something she leaves to her husband. “But it surprises me [Exide] would want to sell their products in the community they contaminated,” she said angrily.

In addition to their East L.A. location, the Auto Supply Company has stores in downtown Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens; all three are fairly close to the Vernon plant and other areas known to have been contaminated by recycler.

Fernandez said the store does not plan to reorder Exide batteries when the current inventory sells out. He said the change has nothing to do with the company’s problems in Vernon, but with pricing.

Maria Garcia, 63, is an East L.A. resident and says she doesn’t blame the retailer for selling Exide batteries. She said Exide is solely responsible.

“It’s scary to think that we cannot get away from this company,” Garcia said in Spanish. “The problem is most people just don’t know or care” about these issues.

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

‘Move Quicker,’ City Tells DTSC

September 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A small breathing machine in his hands and on the verge of tears, Javier Hernandez asked  Commerce city officials to explain why they had not do something sooner to stop the lead contamination flowing from a controversial batter-recycling plant in Vernon to Commerce homes.

“We are here to demand a speedy clean up of our area,” Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the council during its bimonthly meeting last week. “I have to use this oxygen machine to sleep for the rest of my life,” he desperately added.

As previously reported by EGP, Commerce officials were caught by surprise when they recently learned that at least one city neighborhood is among the areas state regulators believe to be contaminated with lead from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon.

Concerned about the exposure, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) was asked to attend the city council’s Sept. 8 meeting and to explain their findings to the council and residents.

In March, Exide was forced to permanently close down over its illegally handling of hazardous waste, violations that had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities to dangerous levels of cancer causing levels of lead and arsenic.

On Aug. 20, DTSC announced the contamination area was larger than originally believed, and that new wind pattern modeling had determined that Commerce should be added to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties on the north side of Commerce could be contaminated with lead from the battery-recycling plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.

Gina Solomon, MD. MPH, deputy secretary for Science and Health with California Environmental Protection Agency, Cal EPA, described lead as a type of poison that could cause anemia, abdominal cramps, seizures, kidney damage. It can also lead to neurological and birth defects.

“Lead doesn’t really [ever] go away,” she explained.

Solomon said that while the investigation is ongoing, she “strongly” discourages allowing children to play in the dirt and people gardening with the soil in their backyards.

“People can also take off their shoes or wipe them well on the entrance mat” to prevent tracking the contaminated soil inside their homes, she suggested.

Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca del Rio told the audience she’s worried because DTSC at first said Commerce was not impacted. “Now they say we are but we don’t know to what extent,” she said.

Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo told DTSC’s representatives she is very disappointed that they are not moving faster with their investigation and that they had not yet even notified the Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) about the potential contamination at schools in Commerce.

“You won’t have a draft [of your action plan] until October, that means you will not start sampling until December,” Rebollo said in frustration. “That’s not quick enough.”

DTSC Site Project Manager Su Patel said testing is being delayed due to a lack of available funding, but once they get started they would move quickly to test the large number of properties.

She said the agency would need help from the city to identify and contact property owners.

Which area is contaminated? asked Baca del Rio. “We need to know, to create some relief,” she said.

While Patel was reluctant to specify an area, a map provided by DTSC shows possible contamination in and around the Bristow Park neighborhood.

The focal point should be our schools, we need to highlight any problems around our children, Councilman Hugo Argumedo told DTSC.

Patel said DTSC has been in contact with MUSD and is doing its best to make sure everyone is informed.

“Fix it! Figure out who’s doing the damage,” Baca del Rio told state regulators.

“We are aware we are not the only [contaminated] community, but this community is my priority, as it is the priority of the council,” she said.

Hernandez told EGP he’s tired of hearing promises that the problem will be fixed. He was very upset that the doctor focused on a general study about the impact of lead on children and did not included local statistics in her presentation.

“How is it possible that we allow these people to come in and let them talk to their benefit?” he said. Hernandez wants more than talk, he wants a speedy cleanup.

But according to Solomon, they are still in the very early stages of the investigation in Commerce.

Hernandez’ situation highlights the complexity of identifying with certainty the source of the contamination, at least how it got to where it might be found. Hernandez told EGP he worked for 35 years at a painting company near Exide, and blames the battery recycling plant for his asthma.

Solomon said the agency would like to hear from people like Hernandez and former Exide employees so they can test them for lead, pointing out that most of Exide’s workers did not live in Vernon. She said in cases like Hernandez, who worked nearby—they could have unwittingly spread the contamination to their homes.

“They usually come with lead on their shoes, clothes, inside of their car,” Solomon said. “It is an important issue for them and their families” to consider.

Residents Demand State Agencies Clean Exide Contamination Now

August 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

For the first 17 years of his life, Jose Anthony Gutierrez lived in Vernon, not too far from the now closed Exide Technologies plant. He says he is living proof that Exide is to blame for many of the health issues in surrounding communities.

“Take a long hard look at me,” Gutierrez told state regulars last week during a public meeting of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) community advisory group at the Salt Lake Park Community Center in Huntington Park.

“I may look 14 but I’m actually 25 years old,” Gutierrez said. “Doctors told me I shouldn’t be alive today.”

According to Gutierrez, he and his family lived in Vernon because it was what they could afford. When he nearly died of cancer caused by years of lead exposure, the family decided to move to Huntington Park, one of the cities reeling from the fallout of Exide pollution.

Jose Anthony Guitierrez holds up a map depicting how close he lived to the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon during a public meeting last week.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Jose Anthony Guitierrez holds up a map depicting how close he lived to the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon during a public meeting last week. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“The sad part is I’m still being exposed to arsenic and god knows what else,” he said tearfully.

Just over a week ago, DTSC revealed that as many as 10,000 homes could be contaminated with lead spewed by the former acid-lead battery recycler. State regulators said soil sampling was expanded to a larger geographical area and tests showed a much higher number of properties contaminated than previously believed.

Angry residents living within the contamination zone — from Huntington Park, Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles and other areas near Vernon — packed the advisory committee meeting last Thursday and loudly demanded the state agency immediately begin what could turn out to be the biggest environmental cleanup and public health disaster in California history.

Throughout the meeting, speakers decried DTSC’s years of poor regulation of Exide and voiced distrust of the agency’s ability to handle the cleanup.

“Now no one is willing to take responsibility and pay for the harm,” said Maria Flores, scolding DTSC officials for allowing Exide to continue to operate on an interim-permit for decades despite numerous toxic emission-related violations.

With her elderly father at her side, Flores said he and her husband are very ill. She blames Exide where both men worked for years for her family’s ailments.

“My son was conceived and born while my husband worked there,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “He has severe learning disabilities. He is a seventh grader with a third grade learning capability,” she told officials and their advisors.

Exposure to lead has been linked to learning disabilities and birth defects. Children are especially at risk because they play in the dirt, according to health and environment experts.

Young children who are exposed to lead may also suffer from damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral problems, anemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, hyperactivity and in extreme cases death, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Lead poisoning in adults can cause poor muscle coordination, nerve damage, increase in blood pressure, hearing and vision impairment and reproductive problems.

According to Flores, the car her father drove to work was found to have high levels of lead. He parked the vehicle across the street or in the parking lot of the facility every day for 27 years, she said.

He would load the family into that same car, she said angrily.

Participants at the meeting demanded that the cleanup be done immediately. Questions whirled about the cost and who would pay.

Decontamination costs for the much larger number of properties is going to skyrocket, according to experts. DTSC Chief of Permitting Rizgar Ghazi said the clean up of the Exide plant alone would cost the company $26 million.

Last year, Exide struck a deal with federal authorities and state regulators to permanently close down and set aside $9 million to cleanup 219 homes in exchange for avoiding federal criminal prosecution for its illegal handling of hazardous waste.

So far, lead-tainted soil has been removed from 150 homes north and south of the plant. An additional 146 homes have been tested in an area beyond the initial scoping area to determine how far Exide’s contamination reaches.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee informed the crowd that the $7 million received from the state last week would be used to “swiftly” clean homes with lead levels above 1,000 parts per million and to conduct additional testing in the expanded zone, which now includes Commerce as well as Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park.

“How many times have we heard that,” several people in the audience scoffed over the use of the word “swiftly.”

DTSC officials continued to emphasize the agency’s commitment to cleaning up the community and holding all responsible parties accountable.

A capability many in the audience questioned.

Boyle Heights resident Yolanda Gonzalez and other speakers urged elected officials and state regulators to push California, Gov. Brown specifically, to declare a state of emergency and for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to step in and coordinate a mass evacuation from homes.

Hundreds of angry residents attended the DTSC advisory meeting in Huntington Park Thursday regarding the extent of Exide's lead contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Hundreds of angry residents attended the DTSC advisory meeting in Huntington Park Thursday regarding the extent of Exide’s lead contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Families should be relocated and compensated for their homes and their sickness, Gonzalez said.

The cost to cleanup one residential property stands at $39,000, according to Ghazi.

Lee said DTSC is working to secure funds for the expanded residential cleanup, which could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia represents Commerce and says she does not want any more funds used for testing: “We just need to clean up,” she said impatiently.

DTSC officials countered that testing is necessary to helps prioritize cleanup of properties with the highest contamination. Lee said the agency and its partners are looking at chemicals that could be the “smoking gun” to directly link the contamination to Exide.

Her words seemed to do little to move the hundreds of residents at the meeting to have faith in the agency’s plan.

“No matter what is in that soil, it’s a result of your failure,” said Terry Cano. “Clean it up first and figure it out later.”

Exide Taint Blows Over to City of Commerce

August 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The City of Commerce had joined a long list of communities affected by lead contamination from a Vernon-based battery recycling plant permanently closed in March for hazardous waste violations.

The disturbing news was announced last week by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which said it used wind pattern modeling to add Commerce to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties could be contaminated with lead from the Exide Technologies plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.

Exide’s troubling history of toxic chemical air emissions and hazardous waste violations has sparked outrage and protests in an area that runs from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, pictured center, demands that cleanup of lead contaminated homes begin immediately after learning testing will expand to Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, pictured center, demands that cleanup of lead contaminated homes begin immediately after learning testing will expand to Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP said they are in the “very early stages” of understanding the “scope and extent” of the damage in Commerce, but said city staff and the city council will do everything within their jurisdiction to address the problem.

“We are working really hard and the council is very concerned,” Rifa said. “This is something new for all of us … We don’t want to overstate or play down the problem.”

Like Vernon, Commerce is also an industrial city, the biggest difference Commerce has over 13,000 residents compared to about 200 Vernon residents.

News that toxic pollution from Exide had made its way to homes in Commerce caught many in the city by surprise.

City Planner Jose Jimenez told EGP he attended a public meeting in Boyle Heights Aug. 13 and there was no discussion of possible lead contamination in Commerce.

Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio attended last week’s meeting and told EGP she was taken aback by the news.

She said Vernon needs to revise its policies regarding the types of businesses is allows to operate in that city because they not only impact Vernon, but other communities as well.

Del Rio said she is committed to working on the issue with representatives from all the affected areas.

Last Friday, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who represents Commerce, issued a statement demanding the immediate cleanup of contaminated properties and for DTSC to not spend more time on site testing.

“This contamination is now more widespread and my first concern is with the immediate health of citizens in the City of Commerce, especially our most vulnerable, such as pregnant women and young children who may come in contact with contamination in their yards or at the playground,” Garcia said.

“The continued testing is expensive and continues to only reaffirm what the scientific models show to be the likely spread of the contaminant,” she added.

But according to DTSC spokesperson Sandy Nax, additional testing is needed to identify the locations of lead deposits and concentrations before cleanup can begin.

“Testing also helps with prioritizing cleanup of properties with the highest contamination,” he told EGP.

The northern part of the Union Pacific Railyard is believed to be most affected, Rifa said. The city council has schedule the issue for discussion at its Sept. 8 meeting. DTSC will brief the council on the results of their findings and answer questions, he said.

In the meantime, Garcia’s office reported that DTSC is working on a letter/email that in the next few days will be sent to residents in the impacted area.

“This letter/ email will just explain what is currently going on and what the next steps are,” states Garcia’s office.

With the information being so fresh, city staff told EGP many residents and business owners may not yet be aware of the latest findings.

“I haven’t heard from any business owner” as of yet, Deputy City Administrator Fernando Mendoza told EGP.

“In talking with our Environmental Health and Safety team, we haven’t received any notification from a regulator about possible effect on our business,” Commerce-based Unified Grocers spokesperson Paul Dingsdale told EGP. “We would not anticipate any issues, based on our team’s review.”

Eddie Tafoya, executive director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce Industrial Council, told EGP Tuesday they had only just recently heard the news and are still getting caught up on the issue.

While many in the city expressed surprise over the latest DTSC pronouncements, Commerce is not new to the controversy. In 2013, the city council sent a letter to Vernon requesting they close the plant, but according to Rifa, they never received a response.

The issue could be tricky for Commerce, which also has a large industrial base and is home to one of the busiest railyards in the country, two known sources of pollution.

Unlike Vernon, however, residents in the city have a strong history of pushing environmental concerns, such as pushing to stop trains from idling near homes and most recently a ban on idling by large trucks in order to decrease the harmful effects of diesel emissions to residents and workers in the city.

Baca del Rio said she is expecting to get funding as soon as possible to clean the contamination. “Just because we are minorities that doesn’t mean [big corporations] can come and pollute our city.”

Garcia said she is committed to work with Commerce, residents, the advisory board and DTSC to keep the public informed about “this hazard and the health screenings needed” to move the community forward.

Due to privacy and confidentiality concerns, DTSC will not release information about private property owners and residents, including who is being tested or the results, stated Garcia.

Rifa encouraged those who may be concerned to visit their doctor and to be tested for lead. Following other simple directions, such as removing shoes before entering a house, also makes sense, Rifa said.

“The test will show whether the level is above the Centers for Disease Control’s acceptable limits, and whether medical attention is needed,” said Rifa.

 

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is still testing the blood-lead levels of residents near the Exide facility. Those interested can sign up for the testing at www.bloodleadtesting.com or by calling toll-free:1-844-888-2290. 

 

Angry Residents Decry Handling of Exide Cleanup

August 21, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Fuming over news that as many as 10,000 homes could be contaminated with lead spewed from the now closed Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, hundreds of people on Thursday demanded state regulators immediately begin clean up of what could turn out to be the biggest “environmental clean up and public health disasters in California history.

“If you can’t handle the problem get out of the way and let federal government step in,” insisted Terry Cano, a resident of Boyle Heights whose home was found to have higher than safe levels of lead but has not yet been decontaminated.

“I don’t care where it came from, just clean it up,” she said angrily during a public meeting of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) community advisory group in Huntington Park at the Salt Lake Park Community Center.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (pictured second to right) demands that clean up of lead contaminated homes begin immediately. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (pictured second to right) demands that clean up of lead contaminated homes begin immediately. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC revealed just over a week ago that the agency had expanded soil sampling for lead to a larger geographical area and the tests revealed much higher numbers of property contaminated with the toxic chemical than previously believed.

“We have preliminarily estimated the number of residential properties potentially affected could be five to six thousand, or as high as nine to 10 thousand,” Lee said. “It is certainly a large extent of impact.”

Angry residents living within the contamination zone — from Huntington Park, Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles and other communities near the former lead-battery recycling and smelting plant packed — packed the advisory committee meeting and loudly demanded the state agency admit its failures and speed up the clean up.

DTSC will use $7 million it received from the state Thursday to swiftly clean homes with lead levels above 1,000 parts per million, agency Director Barbara Lee told the loud crowd Thursday.

The state’s money will be added to the $9 million Exide was forced to place in a community trust fund as part of an agreement to avoid federal criminal prosecution for its illegal handling of hazardous waste.

Lee said half of the funds would be used to conduct additional testing in the expanded zone, which will now include Commerce as well as Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park.

The comments struck a nerve with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia who represents Commerce.

“We don’t need testing, we just need to clean up,” she said. “Three million [dollars] should not be going to testing!”

Several members of the community advisory committee, which is supposed to be providing input and oversight for the clean up process, also expressed distrust in DTSC’s ability to handle the cleanup.

“We don’t want you to be sorry,” a visibly agitated Teresa Marquez said. “Its time for the governor to know, its time for Obama to know.”

Hundreds of angry residents attended the DTSC advisory meeting in Huntington Park Thursday regarding the extent of Exide's lead contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Hundreds of angry residents attended the DTSC advisory meeting in Huntington Park Thursday regarding the extent of Exide’s lead contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

It’s time for California to declare a state of emergency and for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to step in and coordinate a mass evacuation from homes, some speakers said.

Exposure to lead has been linked to learning disabilities and birth defects. Children are especially at risk because they play in the dirt, according to health and environment experts.

The $9 million Exide set aside was to pay for the cleanup of 219 homes north and south of the plant. So far, lead-tainted soil has been removed from 146 homes. An additional 146 homes were tested in an area beyond the initial scoping area to determine the extent of Exide’s contamination.

Media reports have placed the cost between $150 million to $200 million. According to Lee, DTSC is working to secure funds for the expanded residential cleanup.

DTSC Chief of Permitting Rizgar Ghazi explained the cost to clean up the Exide plant site would cost the company $26 million.

“Leave Exide the way it is, use that money to clean up the community,” demanded Miguel Alfaro of Boyle Heights. “Leave the building up as an example of your lack of enforcement.”

Exide Tainted Homes Could Be In the Thousands

August 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

As many as 10,000 homes near a shuttered battery-recycling plant may be contaminated, state regulators said last week.

The announcement by the Department of Toxic Sub stances Control substantially increases the number of homes the state agency previously believed were contaminated by emissions of lead from the Exide Technology plant in Vernon.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee said lead sampling was expanded to a larger geographical area and revealed that more people within one to three miles of the Exide plant could be living on property contaminated with the toxic chemical.

“We have preliminarily estimated the number of residential properties potentially affected could be five to six thousand, or as high as nine to 10 thousand,” Lee said. “It is certainly a large extent of impact.”

The new estimates potentially make it one of the largest environmental clean ups and public health disasters in in the state’s history.

Exposure to lead has been linked to learning disabilities and birth defects. Children are especially at risk because they play in the dirt, according to health and environment experts.

Earlier this year Exide struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to close the Vernon plant and pay for the clean up of lead-contaminated homes in lieu of criminal prosecution. Exide set aside $9 million to pay for the cleanup of 219 homes north and south of the plant. So far, lead-tainted soil has been removed from 146 homes. An additional 146 homes were tested in an area beyond the initial scoping area to determine the extent of Exide’s contamination.

“Cleanup in this area will happen but it is not required,” Lee said.

She would not specify how much it would cost to clean the thousands of homes state regulators now believe may be contaminated. “It’s safe to say it’s going to be an expensive cleanup.”

Media reports have placed the cost between $150 million to $200 million. According to Lee, DTSC is working to secure funds for the expanded cleanup.

There may be other parties also potentially responsible, said Lee, explaining the state agency is looking at particle samples that could be the smoking gun linking Exide to the contamination.

“We are working hard to make sure that everybody who contributed to the contamination contributes to the cleanup.”

Communities Near Exide Put DTSC on Notice

June 25, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Only a few dozen people showed up last week for a meeting billed as a chance for residents to learn more about the process to clean up contamination at the shuttered Exide plant in Vernon, prompting several people to again criticize the Department of Toxic Substance Control for its “poor outreach.”

The low-turnout is just another example of DTSC’s failure to keep residents informed about the hazardous waste polluter, several speakers complained.

“There’s a long history of injustice in this whole Exide issue,” Mark Lopez, of East Yard Communities told EGP. “There is a continuance of frustration over the inclusion of the community and the inadequate outreach by DTSC.”

Excide Technologies, a lead-acid battery recycler and smelter, was forced to close down in order to avoid federal charges related to its long history of hazardous waste violations. They have been fined millions of dollars to pay costs associated with the clean up of toxic chemicals at their Vernon plant and contaminated properties in surrounding communities.

Dozens of residents from Huntington Park to Boyle Heights attended DTSC’s scoping meeting June 18 at Maywood City Hall.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Dozens of residents from Huntington Park to Boyle Heights attended DTSC’s scoping meeting June 18 at Maywood City Hall. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Before that process starts, however, DTSC must prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) to identify the potential impacts and mitigations expected to take place during the closure process.

Last week’s scoping meeting was a chance for residents in Maywood and other communities to tell state regulators what they want included in the report.

However, it’s the middle of graduation season and Bell Gardens High School, where many local families send their children to school, has their graduation ceremony tonight, so they are not here, Lopez pointed out.

“This could have easily been avoided had [DTSC] done their research on the community,” he said. “It’s DTSC’s job, they have the staff for outreach.”

It should not be so hard for people to get their voices heard, echoed Jessica Prieto of East Los Angeles.

According to DTSC, the agency has held six meetings in Boyle Heights and Maywood since Exide was closed.

Most people at the meeting are already informed and involved, and regularly attend meetings on Exide, said frustrated residents, accusing DTSC of not doing enough to reach out to the people who don’t already attend meetings.

“It seems like you are just going through the motions,” said Aide Castro, a Maywood business owner and aid to Assemblyman Anthony Rendon.

She wanted to know why local business owners like her, and the nearly 40 members of the new Advisory Board overseeing the plant closure were not notified about the meeting.

“I didn’t say anything [before the meeting] on purpose, to see if you would send it,” she said. “If we’re not receiving a flyer it’s hard to phantom the community outreach is being done effectively.”

According to DTSC, however, board members were given a list of meeting dates during their first meeting on May 28 and the scoping meeting was discussed in depth during the June 11 advisory group meeting. DTSC spokeswoman Tamma Adadamek told EGP the agency enlists the help of members of the Community Advisory Group to share information discussed at our monthly meetings.

Site Project Manager Su Patel said DTSC mailed the meeting notice to 2,700 area residents and that hundreds of others on the agency’s email blast received an electronic notice.

That’s why it’s always the same people attending the meeting, complained Maywood Councilman Oscar Magaña, That number is much too low given that as many as 375,000 people live in Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Huntington Park and Vernon.

“I’m sure you’ve heard enough from these people,” he told regulators; you have to do something different. “The schools are usually a great place to pass out information around,” Magaña said.

But in addition to mailing out and emailing information according to DTSC, representatives have called and visited the homes of dozens and dozens of residents in the area. Adamek added that the agency regularly updates their website with new information about the Exide cleanup and closure.

The agency also holds a conference call every two weeks with community leaders to share information on the project, she added.

Boyle Heights resident Doelorez Mejia attends nearly every meeting related to Exide. She said holding the meeting in the southeast city of Maywood shows DTSC is starting to listen to the community, but pushed the agency to do much outreach.

“Put yourself on the agenda of the local school districts,” she suggested.

Magaña also recommended DTSC reach out to environmental justice groups, especially those already involved with the fight against Exide.

“Those people have experience canvassing, I bet you they would be more than willing to help,” he said, prompting applause from the audience.

Many of the people living in the neighborhoods and cities surrounding Exide are undocumented and fear retribution if they speak out, said Lopez, who is community co-chair of the Exide Advisory Board. He believes some people fear they will be forced to move if DTSC or other agencies get wind that they live in homes with unpermitted improvements, such as converted garages.

“This has led everyday residents and organizations to step in and fill the role of organizing the community,” he added. “There have been some improvements by DTSC, but a lot of that has been a result of pressure from the community.”

In an email to EGP DTSC officials said all the comments and questions raised by the community are being considered.

“We are happy to have suggestions on how to better reach the community. We want them to be informed about the closure, and they know best how they can be reached,” said Adamek.

Residents have until June 29 to submit comments regarding the Notice of Preparation. They will get a second chance when the DEIR is presented sometime in September, as well as have a chance to comment on the closure plan once it is approved.

The agency said the first phase of closure will take between 19 to 22 months and will include removing equipment and contaminated soil and demolishing buildings “down to dirt.” That phase is expected to take place sometime in Spring 2016.

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.

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