State environmental regulators issued guidelines Thursday that will allow expedited cleanups of high-risk homes near the shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon even before a full mitigation plan and environmental review are completed.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control released a draft cleanup plan and environmental impact report for public review in December, with cleanup operations to mitigate lead-contaminated soil and properties near the plant anticipated to begin this summer.
That schedule, however, sparked criticism from some residents and area officials who said some properties near the plant are at particularly high risk.
DTSC officials said Thursday they will move forward with cleanups on a “case-by-case basis” at a limited number of properties “with high levels of lead in the soil and the greatest exposures to sensitive populations.”
“We are utilizing all of the resources at our disposal to ensure that we are able to take action to protect the most sensitive populations impacted by the presence of lead in the soil from the Exide operations,” DTSC Director Barbara Lee said.
The agency plans to consider for expedited cleanup properties that have soil with lead levels of 1,000 parts per million or more. The agency will also consider cleanups at properties were a resident
“has a blood-lead level at or above five micrograms per deciliter, which is the level used by the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify children with elevated blood-lead 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.
Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year signed legislation providing $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods surrounding the now-shuttered plant.
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.
Dos líderes de la justicia ambiental quien han defendido y luchado incansablemente por el aire limpio durante años en una de las regiones más contaminadas del Condado de Los Ángeles fueron reconocidos la semana pasada por el Distrito de Administración de Calidad del Aire de la Costa Sur (SCAQMD por sus siglas en inglés).
El cofundador de “East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice”, Angelo Logan, y el Monseñor John Moretta, de la Iglesia de Resurrección, fueron honrados por la agencia estatal durante un almuerzo el 5 de enero en Commerce.
Ambos son miembros del grupo consultivo de justicia ambiental del SCAQMD y son conocidos por su participación en la lucha contra la planta de reciclaje de baterías Exide en Vernon que ahora está cerrada. Ellos también han hablado a favor de las comunidades marginadas por años, quienes han sufrido más las consecuencias dañinas a su salud por la contaminación de Exide.
“No sólo se preocupan profundamente por sus comunidades, sino que se han comprometido totalmente”, dijo Wayne Nastri, oficial ejecutivo del SCAQMD, durante el almuerzo. “Su liderazgo e inspiración nos hace a todos mejores y nos da algo que imitar”.
Angelo Logan fundó un Movimiento de Justicia Ambiental en el Este
Logan co-fundó East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice en 2001 como respuesta al alarmante número de personas que conoció en la Ciudad de Commerce con asma. Rodeado de ferrocarriles, autopistas y por la industria, Logan – un mecánico en ese entonces – decidió luchar contra los contaminadores de la industria para asegurarse de que él y sus vecinos tuvieran un aire puro.
“Si no nos hubiéramos involucrado, nadie lo habría hecho”, él dijo a EGP. “Lo hicimos por el amor a la comunidad”.
Bajo su liderazgo, East Yard organizó a los residentes y juntos se involucraron en asuntos relacionados directamente con la salud y la calidad de vida.
El director ejecutivo actual de East Yard, Mark López, le dijo a EGP que Logan fue fundamental en la creación de la póliza de zonas verdes de Commerce. La póliza tiene como objetivo el prevenir la exposición tóxica de los residentes con los negocios locales. Al igual, la póliza lucha para revitalizar las oportunidades económicas locales y la infraestructura a lo largo de los bulevares principales.
“Angelo [Logan] ha establecido el tono en la comunidad”, explicó López.
Logan dijo que aceptaba el premio a nombre del movimiento por la justicia ambiental, aprovechando el momento para “anteponer la verdad al poder”.
El mecánico convertido en líder sin fines de lucro alentó a los asistentes a utilizar cualquier poder que tengan a su disponibilidad, ya sea el poder de las personas o el poder político, para mantener la lucha por la justicia ambiental.
También agregó que los cambios que llegarán a Washington DC – refiriéndose al nuevo gobierno de Trump – resultará en una lucha por la justicia ambiental.
“California está al frente de los esfuerzos para la purificación del aire para el resto del país y del mundo … Nos ven como un modelo en medidas que protegen la salud pública”, dijo Logan. “Debemos continuar haciéndonos mutualmente responsables los unos a otros”, dijo, y le pidió al SCAQMD que permanezca atento del Tesoro Refinery en Carson.
“Asegúrense de que no se aprovechen de la comunidad”, advirtió.
Zully Juárez está a cargo del desarrollo y de comunicaciones de East Yard y dijo que Logan siempre ha prestado atención a los impactos locales y ha utilizado su poder para construir su comunidad.
“Él puso las cosas en perspectiva y siempre habla desde el corazón”, dijo a EGP.
A pesar de no tener el entrenamiento tradicional do muchos líders del medio ambiente o experiencia en organización comunitaria, López dice que el trabajo entre Logan y los residentes, las agencias estatales y funcionarios públicos ha marcado la diferencia, señalando que quienes trabajan con él saben que él es honesto y compasivo.
“El podría ser considerado como un forastero con credibilidad por algunos”, dijo Juárez, agregando que Logan se ganó el respeto de los que le rodean.
“Sus esfuerzos a lo largo de los años hicieron posible que la comunidad que vivía aquí sea considerada experta y capaces de aportar soluciones a los problemas que nos aquejan”, ella agregó.
Aunque ya no encabeza a East Yard, Logan sigue defendiendo la justicia ambiental. Actualmente, su atención y sus esfuerzos se centran en Long Beach. La tal también es una ciudad con ferrocarriles, autopistas, industria y con un puerto, señala el Dr. Joseph K. Lyou, miembro de la Junta Directiva de AQMD, quien conoció a Logan hace 17 años.
Lyou recordó cómo el cofundador de East Yard le invitó a hacer un recorrido por los ferrocarriles de Commerce, y cómo Logan identificó a una planta de reciclaje de baterías de plomo señalando que era dañina hacia la comunidad y necesitaba ser cerrada.
“Esa fue la primera vez que escuche algo referente a Exide”, dijo Lyou.
Rev. Juan Moretta toma el mensaje de la justicia del púlpito a la calle
El Monseñor Moretta ha sido el pastor de la Iglesia de Resurrección en Boyle Heights durante 33 años. Cuando no está en la iglesia, está organizando a los residentes y combatiendo las injusticias en la zona.
Juntamente con el grupo Madres del Este de L.A., un grupo activista que él co-fundó, Moretta ha luchado para impedir un plan polémico de construcción de una planta central eléctrica de mega-vatio en Vernon y antes de eso a una prisión en el Este de Los Ángeles. Él también participó en la exitosa campaña que evitó la construcción de un incinerador de residuos peligrosos en Boyle Heights y en la larga lucha contra el cierre de Exide.
Estas acciones convierten a Moretta en el “padre de la justicia ambiental”, dijo Lyou.
Lyou señaló que Moretta ha ayudado a agencias como SCAQMD a escuchar directamente a los residentes, muchas veces recibiendo audiencias públicas en la Iglesia de la Resurrección.
Bajo la dirección de Moretta, la iglesia de Boyle Heights ha sido durante los últimos 19 años el hogar del grupo Resurrection Neighborhood Watch. Al igual que otros grupos de vigilancia de los vecindarios, con miembros unidos para mantener la seguridad de la comunidad deteniendo crímenes violentos y de propiedad. El grupo de Resurrección también protege seriamente a los residentes de la comunidad, en su mayoría latinos, de ser víctimas de injusticias ambientales.
Los residentes y los feligreses que componen el grupo han sido fieles a las audiencias relacionadas con Exide. Ellos han expresado repetidamente sus preocupación por el manejo del sitio tóxico y cualquier asunto que pueda afectar la salud o la seguridad de la comunidad.
Moretta admite que no todas las luchas en las que han participado han resultado victoriosas a su favor. Él señaló que la comunidad perdió la batalla por un proyecto de metro menos intrusivo en el este. A diferencia de Hollywood, la comunidad estaba atascada con un sistema de tren ligero por encima del suelo que dividía a su comunidad, él recordó.
“Todavía hay injusticias hacia los pobres”, dijo Moretta a EGP. “El ‘chico pobre’ no está familiarizado con el sistema que por ende se aprovecha de los desfavorecidos”, él lamentó.
Moretta agradeció a los miembros de la comunidad que han desempeñado un papel importante en llevar la justicia a una comunidad que a menudo es ignorada.
“No estaría aquí sin la gente en esta habitación”, dijo Moretta mientras aceptaba su premio.
Moretta se merece el reconocimiento por su incansable lucha para proteger a la comunidad, dijo Terri Cano, residente de Boyle Heights, quien como Moretta testificó ante los legisladores estatales para condenar el manejo y la aplicación por parte de los reguladores estatales de la contaminación de Exide.
“La mayoría de los sacerdotes trabajan fuera de su iglesia, pero el padre John [Moretta] ha llegado hasta Sacramento en representación de sus feligreses”, señaló con admiración.
Terry Márquez conoce a Moretta desde hace décadas, primeramente siendo parte de las Madres del Este de L.A. Ella dice que él siempre ha sido alguien confiable en la comunidad.
“No lo cuestiono, sé que él realmente se preocupa por esta comunidad”.
Moretta dice que vigilará a Exide, así como a las compañías de metales localizadas en Boyle Heights. En el pasado, estas empresas han sido acusadas de eliminar de manera inapropiada los materiales peligrosos y de contaminar su entorno con polvo metálico.
Para este último esfuerzo, Moretta dice que espera inspirar y reclutar a una nueva generación de activistas y líderes de la comunidad del este.
“La próxima generación tiene que continuar la lucha”, él agregó.
When the public was presented the draft closure plan for the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant a year ago, dozens of residents, environmental activists and health experts took issue with some of the details, including safety protections for workers. They were also worried that the dismantling of the site could result in the recontamination of nearby communities.
Some of those concerns have been addressed in the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the closure approved and released Dec. 8 by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state regulatory agency handling the cleanup of the Vernon facility and surrounding communities.
DTSC has also just released the Draft Environmental Impact Report and Draft Remedial Action (Cleanup) Plan for the residential portion of the cleanup process, which is expected to undergo the same level of public scrutiny during the 45-day public comment period that ends at 5 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2017.
Smelting operations at the Exide plant – located on the 2700 block of South Indiana Street – were shut down by state regulators in March 2014, but not before exposing an estimated 110,000 eastside and southeast residents to cancer-causing and neurological damaging toxins. The facility was permanently closed the following year by federal regulators after racking up dozens of hazardous waste violations with near impunity.
Many of the recommendations submitted by the public are contained in the Final EIR for the plant closure, “resulting in a clearer analysis” and in several instances “modifications to the project and environmental mitigation,” according to DTSC.
The agency specifically responded to issues repeatedly raised during public meetings held at the beginning of this year and submitted in written form, related to concerns about worker health and safety, the removal of lead from on-site kettles, and the routes trucks transporting hazardous waste from the site will travel.
Over the last three years, at dozens of public meetings and hearings, those same groups have also demanded a safe and thorough cleanup of homes, parks, schools and other properties contaminated with lead and other toxic chemicals released by the Exide plant.
The just released draft EIR for that effort is a preliminary outline of the process DTSC plans to use to achieve that goal. As required by law, the 45-day public comment period for the draft cleanup plan and EIR gets underway today, with several public information sessions scheduled to take place in early January.
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP he is disappointed both documents were released during the holiday season, when residents tend to be busy and less likely to have the time needed to review such extensive reports.
“This is the worst betrayal of trust and transparency that has happened in a while,” Lopez said about the timing, noting he had not yet reviewed the draft EIR but wants to make sure it addresses problems he witnessed in the handling of the first stage of the residential cleanup involving 200 or so homes near the Exide plant.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee said she considered delaying the release of the document until after the holiday but ultimately decided against it.
“What we have consistently heard from community members is that getting the document out to be looked at, at the earliest time is the primary objective,” she said during a call with the press Wednesday.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who represents most of the neighborhoods impacted by Exide, said he was pleased that DTSC has finally released the documents for public review.
“This toxic and hazardous facility has been allowed to plague our community for far too long,” said Santiago. “I’m going to continue to demand that this clean-up happen in both a quick and quality manner and I’m prepared to engage legislatively with our community stakeholders to make sure that happens.”
Earlier this year, Lopez was among many who opposed reigniting the 100-ton kettles at the Exide plant as part of the lead removal strategy outlined in the draft closure plan. The concern being that the method could lead to recontamination.
“The kettle issue just didn’t seem to be headed in the right direction,” he told EGP Tuesday.
DTSC representatives could only document the comments made by the public during the review process, and not respond directly to his concerns until now. In the report released this month, the agency states it plans to reject the proposal to re-melt the lead in kettles after determining the method did not meet safety standards or protect the public, and points out there are alternatives to achieve the same goal.
DTSC also agreed that public comments concerning protections for workers were warranted. New conditions were added to the Final EIR, which require contractors to prepare a draft health and safety plan, comply with the most up-to-date standards for occupational lead exposure adopted by Cal/OSHA, even if they have not gone into effect, and to provide appropriate protection for workers operating in confined spaces.
Earlier this year, Dr. Jill Johnston, assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, suggested the agency adopt stricter rules to prevent any more workers from being poisoned by Exide.
Residents were also concerned that transporting lead from the Vernon facility through local neighborhoods for disposal could be dangerous, potentially again exposing residents and properties to a new round of cancer-causing toxins.
Formal comments included multiple requests for zero-emission trucks to be used in the transport and for greater oversight of the transportation routes.
According to DTSC’s report, however, “There are not enough zero-emission trucks available to provide the number required by the proposed project.” The agency went on to explain that the trucks used to transport hazardous waste removed from the plant will only contribute a small percentage of construction emissions.
“The use of zero-emission trucks would not substantially lessen air quality emissions and the impact would remain significant and unavoidable.”
The agency proposes implementing tougher engine standards, restrict idling of construction equipment to 5 minutes when not in use and using electric cranes when feasible among other mitigation measures.
Exide must submit its closure implementation plan and workers’ health and safety plan for review by DTSC, and obtain all the required permits before starting work on demolishing and removing structures at the site.
The closure process is expected to begin in Spring 2017 and is expected to take up to two years to complete.
The draft EIR is available for review at several local libraries and at http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/HazardousWaste/Projects/UpdteExideSuspension.cfm. Five public information sessions and three public meetings will be held between Jan. 10 and Jan. 28. For more information, see DTSC’s public notice on page 7 of this newspaper, or call toll free (844) 225-3887.
When Larry Mendoza learned Gov. Jerry Brown had signed legislation imposing a fee on car batteries to fund the cleanup of lead contaminated sites like those near the Exide plant in Vernon, he felt like Sacramento is finally listening.
“The community has been asking for [more funding] for such a long time, it finally feels like the sate is being proactive,” the Commerce resident told EGP.
Beginning April 1, consumers and manufacturers will be required to each pay a $1 fee on every lead-acid car battery sold in California.
“When theses technologies reach their end life, we often learn, the hard way, that these products, when not disposed of properly, come at a cost to their environment and to our health,” wrote Gov. Brown in a letter to the State Assembly.
Retailers currently charge a refundable state-mandated fee intended to encourage customers to properly recycle unused and depleted batteries. Retailers are allowed to keep money not returned to consumers.
The new $1 battery fee is expected to generate approximately $30 million a year to cover costs associated with the cleanup of sites contaminated by lead-acid batteries.
“It’s one thing to be able to come up with legislation, it’s another to come up with a funding source,” Sen. Ricardo Lara acknowledged during a press conference in Commerce last week celebrating the bill’s signing.
Earlier this year, the governor approved a $176.6 million loan to help speed up the testing and cleanup of properties found to have lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals on site due to Exide’s violations of pollution and toxic waste standards.
California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, the regulatory agency charged with overseeing the cleanup, plans to use the funds to test approximately 10,000 properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon and to clean an estimated 2,500 homes in the impacted area.
Funds collected from the battery fee can be used to pay back that loan or added to the Exide cleanup budget.
Over the years, state regulators have repeatedly cited a lack of money for the delays and limitations in dealing with the health hazard. Area residents, elected officials and environmental activists are now hopeful that the new revenue stream will allow the cleanup to be expanded beyond the current target zone.
The bill’s principal author, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, lives in Bell Gardens, a city just outside the area currently being investigated. She has repeatedly asked the state to consider expanding the study area because she and others believe the contamination is not limited to the 1.7 miles surrounding the Exide plant.
“With a guaranteed source of revenue we can now entertain the idea of expanding that radius,” she told EGP.
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP the new fee is another step in the long walk for justice.
“At this point, we are looking at the inter-generational impacts to health, academics, social, violence and crime,” he said. “We need a [long-term health] study to be able to fully remediate the effects of the contamination.”
In a statement to EGP, DTSC stated the agency will use the funds to investigation and cleanup areas that are “reasonably suspected to have been contaminated by the operation of a lead-acid battery recycling facility.”
Garcia told EGP she wants those responsible for the contamination to be held criminally accountable.
“We still need an investigation into what allowed this to happen,” agrees Lopez.
Activists have long questioned why state regulators allowed Exide to operate on a temporary permit and with impunity for decades, putting public health at risk. They have also called for criminally prosecuting Exide officials and anyone else who was complicit in the environmental crime.
Sen. Tony Mendoza said it’s frustrating that the Exide crisis has not received the same federal and national attention as other environmental disasters, such as the lead contamination of the water supply in Flint Michigan.
The Exide plant in Vernon is one of 14 now closed lead battery-recycling sites in the state. Cleanup of the site is expected to be the largest and most expensive environmental disaster in state history. City of Industry-based Quemetco is the only lead battery recycler still operating in California. Testing is currently underway to determine if the surrounding communities were contaminated by the plant’s toxic emissions, which have also exceeded state health standards.
“Decades of improper lead-acid battery recycling have left these communities to face enormous environmental challenges,” noted Brown in his signing statement.
As of last month, 2,900 properties in the 1.7-mile target zone have been tested for lead and 236 have been cleaned.
Larry Mendoza says he hopes legislators understand how critical it is to fund and expedite the process, adding that seeing legislators working with the community and addressing some of their concerns has him feeling more optimistic.
“Sadly,” he added, “what unites us is the pollution of lead.”
Larry Mendoza al fin cree que Sacramento está prestando atención, después de enterarse que el gobernador de California, Jerry Brown, firmó una legislación a favor de imponer una cuota en las baterías de carro para financiar la limpieza de la contaminación de plomo causada por la planta, Exide.
“La comunidad ha estado pidiendo [más financiación] por bastante tiempo y al fin se siente que el estado está siendo proactivo”, dijo Mendoza, residente de Commerce, a EGP.
Empezando el 1 de abril, los consumidores y los fabricantes serán requeridos a pagar $1 por cada batería para carros, con ácido de plomo, vendidas en California.
“Cuando éste tipo de tecnología llega al final de su vida, hemos aprendido que los productos no son desechados correctamente, lo cual tiene un costo en el medio ambiente y en nuestra salud”, escribió el gobernador Brown en una carta a la Asamblea Estatal.
Los distribuidores actualmente cobran una tarifa reembolsable, mandada por el estado, con el propósito de motivar a los clientes a que reciclen las baterías correctamente. Los distribuidores son permitidos a quedarse con el dinero que no se les regrese a los clientes.
Se espera que la nueva tarifa de $1 genere aproximadamente $30 millones al año para cubrir los costos asociados con la limpieza de las baterías de acido.
“Es una cosa diferente el crear una legislación y otra el crear una fuente de financiamientos”, declaró el senador Ricardo Lara durante una conferencia de prensa en Commerce la semana pasada, la cual celebraba la aprobación de la legislación.
Meses atrás, el gobernador aprobó un préstamo de $176.6 millones para ayudar a avanzar los análisis y la limpieza de las propiedades contaminadas con el plomo y otros químicos tóxicos a causa de las violaciones emitidas por la planta de Exide.
El Departamento de Control de Substancias Toxicas de California junto con la agencia reguladora, encargada de limpiar, planean en usar los fondos para analizar aproximadamente 10,000 propiedades en Bell, Boyle Heights, el Este de Los Ángeles, Huntington Park, Maywood y Vernon. Ellos planean limpiar unas estimadas 2,500 viviendas en el área impactada.
Los fondos que se colecten por medio de la tarifa sobre las baterías podrán ser usados para pagar el préstamo o agregarlo al presupuesto de la limpieza de Exide.
Durante los años, reguladores estatales han repetidamente citado una falta de dinero por las demoras y limitaciones en lidiar con ese riesgo para la salud. Los residentes del área junto con los oficiales y activistas del medio ambiente ahora tienen esperanzas de que el nuevo flujo de financiamiento les permita expandir la limpieza más aya de la zona actual.
La autora principal de la legislación, la asambleísta Cristina García, vive en Bell Gardens, una ciudad cerca de la zona que está siendo investigada. Ella le ha pedido repetidamente al estado en que considere expandir el área de análisis ya que cree que la contaminación no está limitada a las 1.7 millas que rodean la zona donde estaba la planta.
“Con una fuente de ingresos segura podemos ahora entretener la idea de expandir la cobertura”, le dijo a EGP.
Mark López, director ejecutivo de East Yards for Environmental Justice, le dijo a EGP que la nueva tarifa es otro paso en una caminata larga hacia la justicia.
“A estas alturas, estamos viendo los impactos entre generaciones en la salud, los estudios, lo social, la violencia y el crimen”, dijo él. “Necesitamos un estudio sobre los [efectos de largo plazo a la salud] para remediar completamente los efectos de la contaminación”.
En una declaración a EGP, DTSC declaró que la agencia usará los fondos para investigar y limpiar las áreas con “sospechas razonables de haber sido contaminadas por las operaciones de la facilidad de reciclaje de baterías”.
García le dijo a EGP que quiere que los responsables de la contaminación sean penalmente responsables por sus hechos.
“Todavía necesitamos investigar que fue lo que permitió que esto pasara”, acordó López.
Activistas han cuestionado el por qué los reguladores estatales le permitieron a Exide a operar con un permiso temporal y con impunidad por décadas, poniendo en riesgo la salud pública. También han pedido una persecución penal para los oficiales de Exide y para cualquier otro que haya participado en este crimen ambiental.
El senador Tony Mendoza dijo que es frustrante que la crisis de Exide no haya recibido la misma ayuda federal y nacional que otros desastres medioambientales han recibido, tal como fue la contaminación de plomo en el suministro de agua en Flint Michigan.
La planta Exide en Vernon es una de 14 plantas de reciclaje, de baterías con plomo, que han sido cerradas en el estado. La limpieza del área se espera que sea el desastre ambiental más grande y caro en la historia del estado.
La planta Quemetco, basada en la Ciudad de Industry, es la única recicladora de baterías con plomo que permanece operando en California. Las pruebas están en marcha para determinar si las comunidades alrededor también fueron contaminadas por las emisiones toxicas, las cuales sobrepasan los estándares de salud estatales.
“Décadas de reciclaje de baterías con ácido de plomo, inadecuado, han dejado a estas comunidades con problemas ambientales enormes”, declaró Brown al aprobar la legislación.
Desde el mes pasado, 2,900 propiedades, ubicadas dentro de las 1.7 millas de las zonas de cubrimiento, han sido examinadas para ver si tienen plomo. 236 propiedades han sido limpiadas.
Larry Mendoza dijo que espera que los legisladores entiendan lo critico que es financiar y acelerar el proceso, agregando que el ver que los legisladores están trabajando con la comunidad lo tiene optimista.
“Lamentablemente”, agregó, “lo que nos une es la contaminación por el plomo”.
The Board of Supervisors called Tuesday for studies of the long-term health effects of the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak and lead contamination from the now-shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich recommended the study related to the natural gas leak that began Oct. 23 at the Southern California Gas Co. storage facility and was shut down 16 weeks later, on Feb. 11.
Supervisor Hilda Solis asked that Antonovich’s motion be expanded to include a similar study for the neighborhoods surrounding the Exide plant in Vernon.
The board’s vote was unanimous in asking staffers to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to develop a study.
A SoCalGas spokesman said the utility has agreed to spend up to $400,000 to fund the Aliso Canyon study but is waiting for AQMD officials to propose a plan.
Thousands of residents were displaced from their Porter Ranch homes due to the gas leak. Once the well was sealed and residents returned, some continued to complain of headaches, respiratory and skin irritation.
County health officials reported surface dust in many homes contained “low levels of metal contaminants” consistent with those found in well-drilling fluid. They suggested that the contaminants could be the source of symptoms but said the metals did not pose long-term health risks.
The utility stepped in to clean roughly 1,700 homes of those metals.
Tuesday, some residents told the board they are still suffering and the interim director of the Department of Public Health reminded the supervisors that the “gas leak was unprecedented in the history of this country.”
In the case of the Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant, soils tests in surrounding communities have found significant levels of lead contamination.
State officials have set aside $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods within a 1.7-mile radius of the closed plant.
The facility permanently closed in March 2015 after years of failing to meet state standards for operating the plant.
After the board meeting, Solis hailed Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of Assembly Bill 2153, which charges a fee on lead-acid car batteries to help fund clean up contaminated areas.
“We celebrate a victory for communities surrounding the Exide and Quemetco facilities,” Solis said. “AB 2153 will provide much needed clean-up of lead-contaminated soil from thousands of homes surrounding these facilities.”
A small group of community-based researchers in Southeast Los Angeles County is searching to find solutions to environmental issues ranging from lead contamination to tainted storm-water runoff, bike safety and oil pipelines, some of the issues in their own backyards.
For nine weeks, 14 researchers and assistants surveyed streets, studied city documents, conducted tests and interviews as part of the Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative – a project of Commerce-based East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, and named for one of the nonprofits most active members who died last year.
According to the collaborative, the program gives first-generation, undergraduate college students of color training to conduct social justice-oriented research in their communities.
“We live in these communities, we sense the urgency in finding solutions to the issues we face,” says one of the researchers, 24-year-old Suzette Aguirre of South Gate.
“It means something different, [more], to the researchers when they are testing the homes of their neighbors,” explains Floridalma Boj-Lopez, a USC doctoral candidate and project coordinator who told EGP she believes the program participants have a better grasp on environmental injustice issues in Southeast L.A. County.
Boj-Lopez adds that some of the data they collected could actually be used to inform the community about environmental concerns that have not yet been researched by larger institutions.
Working in four separate groups, each research team focused on a specific area of investigation, ranging from studying the impact of lead contaminated soil in the communities surrounding the now-shuttered Exide plant to the consequences of living near oil pipelines in West Long Beach. They also studied issues faced by female bicyclists traveling through truck-heavy traffic and the quality of industrial stormwater runoff into the Los Angeles River.
Each team will detail its findings during a public presentation Friday at the Westside Christian Church in Long Beach.
One group will detail how they studied the industrial runoff from sites near the Los Angeles River and found grease-like stains running from the facility to the river, East Yards Executive Director Mark Lopez told EGP. The group plans to share photographs and the results of lead level tests near river entry points, which will be handed over to the appropriate regulatory agency for possible legal enforcement.
“Every single project is extending the work of one of our campaigns,” notes Lopez.
Julius Calascan, 23, has been volunteering with East Yards for three years, speaking at community meetings about Exide contamination and plans to expand the 710 Freeway, but told EGP he always thought he could do more.
“I’ve been wanting to have a larger role in the organization and this is a different way of helping the cause,” he said about his research, adding he hopes the data collected will spur further investigation into local environmental issues.
Using hand-held, lead detection devices and pH meters, Aguirre and Andrea Luna, 21, of Bell tested the soil at dozens of homes in East Los Angeles, Commerce and South Gate.
They were concerned that the brain-damaging chemicals spewed from the now-shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon had harmed their families and neighbors, who were warned by state regulators to avoid contact with the soil around their homes until tests determine it to be safe.
For some, the warning meant they could no longer grow the fresh vegetables they depend on for a healthy diet.
“Diabetes is already prevalent in this area, which lacks fresh food options,” explains Aguirre, a student at Cal State Long Beach studying nutrition and chemistry. “We wanted to change the situation and further explain the health and social impacts caused by Exide,” that have not been talked about, she told EGP.
Aguirre said they asked themselves what residents could do in the meantime to help remediate the problem while waiting for the more extensive cleanup that could take years.
“We wanted to find a short-term solution that could extract metal out of soil,” Luna told EGP, explaining they have compiled a list of plants and vegetables that detoxify contaminated soil which they plan to release when they present their findings Friday. Luna said they also plan to distribute reading material aimed at helping reduce the fear that comes from being in limbo.
Long Beach residents Whitney Amaya, 23, and Calascan focused their research on the oil and gas lines traveling below west Long Beach. They said the project gave them a better understanding of the types of research they could conduct if they choose to pursue graduate school.
“I was looking into going into grad school but had no experience in research,” explained Amaya, who graduated from UCLA last year with a degree in geography and environmental studies.
Amaya told EGP if it were not for the funding and training provided by the collaborative, it’s unlikely she would have conducted this type of research on her own.
Each of the participants were paid to conduct their research. Funding for the collaborative came from a $50,000 CAL EPA environmental justice small grant as well as $5,000 from individual donations.
The program and funding has grown significantly since last year, according to East Yards, which is now looking at how they can take what they’ve learned to further the research and possibly evolve the project into a community-based think tank.
Coordinator Jessica Prieto is a graduate of San Francisco State University and says she hopes each researcher walks away with an understanding of the issue they studied and now feels confident in the role of community expert.
“Hopefully, they feel actionable and feel like they can do something about it,” she said.
Update: Sept. 16, 2016 3:45p.m. a previous version of this article did not have the correct amount East Yards received from CAL EPA and individual donations. The story updated to clarify how researchers were paid.
After learning lead had been found at Lorena Street Elementary where her two grandchildren attend school, Rosalia Valle wanted reassurance that they would be safe and that the cleanup would begin immediately.
“I’m really worried,” the Boyle Heights resident said in Spanish. “All I can do now is tell them to stay off the dirt.”
Last week the Department of Toxic Substances Control reviewed the results of recent soil samples conducted at Lorena Street Elementary in Boyle Heights and Rowan Elementary School in East Los Angeles and determined that levels of lead at both schools were higher than the 80 parts per million the state considers safe.
DTSC recommended that the Los Angeles Unified School District temporarily fence off the areas where lead was found.
Cleanup at both schools will begin as soon as this weekend for contaminated tree wells and could continue through the end of Thanksgiving break for the grassy areas, according to LAUSD officials.
Carlos Torres, deputy director of LAUSD’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, told EGP the school district plans to go beyond just covering the bare dirt and tree wells as recommended, and will instead remove and replace all the contaminated soil.
“We don’t want to worry about this in the future,” he said. “We want to make sure the campuses are safe in the long run.”
Norma Servin grew concerned about the danger to her 7-year-old when she noticed the fencing erected near the entrance to Lorena Street Elementary on Friday, and realized it was meant to keep children away from lead-contaminated soil.
“I just found out there’s lead where my daughter has attended school for years, where I dropped her off while I was pregnant,” she said, holding her baby.
Exposure to lead can lead to neurological damages in children and premature births in expectant mothers. Even low levels of lead can result in behavior and learning problem and lower IQs in children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Lorena, Rowan and nine other schools were originally tested by contractors hired by Exide Technologies during the summer of 2015, under orders from DTSC as part of the Exide-related cleanup. The Exide plant recycled hundreds of used lead-acid car batteries daily before it was permanently closed in March 2015, following years of illegal emissions and toxic waste violations.
At that time, levels of lead above the federal threshold of 400ppm were discovered at Eastman Elementary in East L.A., prompting the school district to quickly decontaminate the site.
“We didn’t want to wait around, we just removed the soil,” Torres told EGP this week.
DTSC has since tested an additional 11 schools within the 1.7-mile radius surrounding the Vernon plant, but no further action was required at those schools. However, before DTSC would clear the 11 schools tested by Exide contractors, they decided to re-test all the school sites, including Fishburn Elementary in Maywood, which was later cleared from requiring any soil removal.
Test conducted at Lorena and Rowan showed lead levels high enough to require intervention at those sites.
Parents, in the meantime, say they were in dark about potential lead problems at their children’s schools.
According to Torres, LAUSD sent its first notice informing parents of the test results in March. A second notice with the most recent results was sent out last week, and those results have also been posted on LAUSD’s website.
Unlike Eastman, Torres says Rowan and Lorena’s lower lead levels of about 100ppm were just slightly above the state’s hazardous threshold of 80ppm. He also noted that because the school district is conducting the cleanup instead of state regulators, a full CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review is not required.
“If we waited for that we would be looking at this being done next summer,” Torres explained.
DTSC’s Assistant Director for Environmental Justice Ana Mascarenas told EGP the levels of lead found at schools were very low overall.
In comparison, “The 50 homes we have cleaned since then had the highest levels of lead, some above 1,000ppm,” she pointed out, explaining the urgency for remediating those sites first.
Assemblymember Miguel Santiago represents the area where the two impacted schools are located. He met with LAUSD and DTSC officials last week and says he received assurances that the campuses are safe at this time.
“Blocking off the areas has made the campuses safer than they were two or three weeks ago,” he told EGP. “But clean up is the long term goal.”
LAUSD estimates removing tainted soil at Eastman cost the school district thousands of dollars. It is not yet clear what the cost to clean Rowan and Lorena will come in at, however DTSC told EGP the agency fully expects the school district will seek reimbursement from the state.
“The most important priority is not who is going to pay or who is responsible, it’s the safety of the community,” said Santiago.
Watching her three children line up for class, Romero looks at her youngest child seated in a stroller and can’t help but again express her frustration and disbelief that the cleanup has not yet gotten underway.
“If lead affects children, you would think they would start the cleanup at schools” right away.
Recently, our neighbors in the City of Maywood suffered due to a chemical explosion of toxic magnesium at a local plant. This is not the first incident of chemical exposure to afflict the Southeast region. Residents are still recovering, legally, physically, financially, and emotionally, from lead contamination that spewed from a nearby Exide battery plant in Vernon.
These occurrences have had a tremendous effect on the residents’ health and well-being, and the lack of aid and assistance the community has received in the aftermath increasingly disheartening. More specifically, Maywood has received little of the necessary relief provided by Los Angeles County and its Department of Health (DPH). The minimal support that the County has supplied has taken the form of an inadequate evacuation decree (a radius of only one square block) and the provision of cleaning services to homes on only one side of the affected street. The County has ignored the fact that the explosion subjects the entire neighborhood to devastating consequences, and its disregard has left the mostly Latino, working class community in distress, as it struggles to find the means and support required for recovery. This neglect does not, and will not, go unnoticed.
In stark contrast, the County has paid a disproportionate amount of time and money to other communities affected by recent environmental crises. For example, when a gas leak occurred in the suburban and more affluent Porter Ranch area, action was quickly taken. Press conferences and hearings were held, studies were commissioned, and there was a call for an evacuation with a radius of five miles, despite the leak having been deemed non-hazardous. I do not claim that the DPH’s response to this disaster was excessive or superfluous. Instead, I argue that Maywood, and other Southeastern LA cities affected by their own recent environmental crises, must receive the same humane treatment.
The greater question looms: why do communities like Porter Ranch receive much greater aid and attention in times of crisis than industrial communities? Unfortunately, Latino communities such as Maywood have long faced social injustices, and environmental inequities do not escape the extensive list of discriminations.
It is time we take action. Southeast LA cities must be protected, to the same extent as Porter Ranch, in case of future catastrophes. I request that the County and Department of Public Health establish a standardized and impartial system that details the proper response to such environmental calamities. Protocols must be instituted, so that when danger does strike, each and every city in Los Angeles County, despite income or racial status, will be defended by the justice of the law. This is not only a legal duty, but also a moral duty. We must defend the notion that each and every life, regardless of their residential zip code, matters. At a time when our country seems to be at its most unstable, with acts of hatred and wickedness plaguing the nation, we must come together as a united front, bound by our humanity, to tackle this injustice so that we may see a better future for not only ourselves, but for future generations.
Pastor William D. Smart currently serves as the CEO of the Greater Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Rogelio Alvarez of Commerce could soon be part of the team working to decontaminate his neighborhood if hired by state regulators charged with cleaning up lead and other chemicals from the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control is providing free training to local residents and hopes they will be hired to perform sampling and assessment fieldwork during the cleanup and testing of approximately 10,000 properties in Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that soil samples at some homes, schools and day care centers were contaminated with levels of “brain-damaging lead higher than previously disclosed,” with one property as much as 100 times higher than state health standards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers lead levels of 400 parts per million or higher a health hazard. Last week DTSC released a summary of results for 1,190 homes, which showed that more than half of those properties had lead levels above 400ppm, including 36 properties with lead readings above 1,000ppm. Of the 36 properties with lead levels classified as hazardous waste, one third are located in East Los Angeles, according to The Times.
Under a local hiring requirement, state regulators could soon start employing residents from those same neighborhoods to do some of the cleanup work.
Gov. Brown and state lawmakers earlier this year approved a $176.6 million loan to DTSC to help expedite and expand the cleanup process, including a $1.2 million set aside to train local groups and residents in the decontamination process.
The agency’s Workforce Development and Job Training program is currently collaborating with Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LA Trade Tech) and the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA-LOSH) to provide environmental, health and safety and pre-employment life skills training to about 40 students interested in becoming lead sampling technicians.
“This is the beginning of a new model,” acknowledged Roger Kintz, program manager of the workforce development program.
At the insistence of community members, DTSC is requiring contractors to reserve 40 percent of all work hours for people hired from the six impacted communities.
“This is the first time DTSC has done this, it’s not a guideline, it’s required,” explains Kintz.
While there is no guarantee of employment, successfully completing the course will give the students the training and certifications they will need to apply for the 35 are so positions expected to become available by mid-August, and other job openings down the line.
The jobs will be for one year and pay $17 to $20 an hour, according to Kintz.
Asked Tuesday why he decided to take part in the 14-day training program, Alvarez told EGP his reasoning could be summarized in three letters: “ J-O-B.”
Alvarez says he’s been aware for sometime that homes in Commerce could be contaminated with lead, and sees the training as an opportunity to gain new skills that could lead to employment in the environmental industry.
This training will also help beef up his resume, adding to the other areas of environmental training he already has, including hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER), CPR, first aid and lead removal.
“This is a good way to receive more training, keep certifications current at no cost and hopefully land a job,” the Commerce resident told EGP.
According to Alvarez, he has spent hundreds of dollars on training courses and certifications, but has not had any luck finding a job because they are usually only open to union workers.
Also receiving training Tuesday were students from LA CAUSA-Youthbuild (Los Angeles Communities Advocating for Unity, Social Justice and Action, Inc.), an East Los Angeles-based continuation charter school. The training they received focused on the proper way to collect soil and other samples from homes, which like Alvarez, could be in their own neighborhoods.
Johan Lopez, 19, of Boyle Heights told EGP he had heard about the elevated cancer risk his community faces due to the toxic air pollutants spewing from Exide’s Vernon plant. His classmates Ricardo Trujillo, 19 and Valente Pereyda, 20, do not live in the impacted area, but because they attend school in East L.A., they too see the workforce program as a way to improve their job prospects.
All three are already certified in CPR, first aid and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety compliance regulations, but hope to gain much-needed work experience by taking part in the workforce development program.
“By testing our community we are also helping our community,” points out Pereyda, calling it a
Correction July 29, 2016 An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that over 10,000 properties will be tested instead of approximately 10,000. The article also inaccurately stated that the pay scale of the jobs listed, will range between $17 to $28 when in fact they will range between $17 and $20 .