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.

Grupo Asesor de Exide se Reúne

June 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Desde hace unos años, la Iglesia de la Resurrección en Boyle Heights ha sido el epicentro del movimiento para cerrar la planta de baterías de reciclaje Exide localizada en Vernon, un papel que continuó desempeñando la semana pasada como anfitriona de la primera reunión de un nuevo comité asesor encargado de supervisar el cierre de la controversial planta y la limpieza de contaminación de plomo y arsénico que dejó a su paso.

La reunión del 28 de mayo tuvo todas las características de una reunión tradicional del consejo de la ciudad o de la comisión, incluyendo la agenda requerida, minutos y el seguimiento del procedimiento parlamentario.

Read this article in English: Exide Advisory Group Assembles

En muchos aspectos, fue un paso sólido hacia el futuro para una comunidad que siempre se había sentido marginada por los reguladores estatales de contaminación.

“Aquí es donde empieza la asociación”, Barbara Lee, directora del Departamento de Control de Sustancias Tóxicas (DTSC), dijo con entusiasmo en la reunión inaugural del Grupo Asesor de Exide.

Con 37 miembros, el comité generalmente grande está compuesto por personas que representan a la comunidad, los organismos reguladores y funcionarios electos.

Debido a que la comunidad afectada es tan grande, nos pareció que un mayor número de miembros del comité sería apropiado, dijo la portavoz de DTSC Sandy Nax.

El comité se reunirá una vez al mes para revisar aspectos específicos del proceso de cierre, y para plantear preguntas como lo hicieron la semana pasada en temas tales como dónde se moverá el suelo tóxico. Los miembros del comité son el enlace entre los reguladores comunitarios y estatales que realizan el trabajo del día a día en la limpieza de los productos químicos tóxicos en la planta y en las comunidades cercanas.

La planta de Exide en Vernon será demolida en un plazo de 19 a 22 meses. (EGP foto por Nancy Martínez)

La planta de Exide en Vernon será demolida en un plazo de 19 a 22 meses. (EGP foto por Nancy Martínez)

El comité asesor se formó en respuesta a una avalancha de opinión pública negativa resultante de la mala respuesta de DTSC a las preocupaciones de la comunidad acerca de los productos químicos tóxicos que se arrojan ilegalmente de la planta de Vernon actualmente cerrada.

Lee, quien asumió el cargo más alto de DTSC hace apenas unos meses, se comprometió a principios de este año para asegurarse que se le otorgaría la palabra a la comunidad en el futuro. El comité asesor ayuda a Lee a cumplir esa promesa.

El subdirector de DTSC Jim Marxen dijo que el trabajo de la comisión pretende complementar las audiencias públicas que se llevarán a cabo. Ellos le darán a la comunidad otra oportunidad de expresar sus preocupaciones durante el proceso de cierre, dijo.

“El grupo estará involucrado desde el principio en el proceso”… ayudando a lograr un cambio y “ahorrarse el tiempo de cada uno” al “comunicar las necesidades de la comunidad”, dijo Marxen.

Se espera que los miembros de los comités consultivos vengan preparados para compartir ideas y proporcionar comentarios sobre el cierre y materiales de limpieza relacionados, y la preparación de los documentos necesarios para cumplir con la Ley de Calidad Ambiental de California (CEQA).

“Nunca hemos demolido una instalación de este riesgo”, señaló Jane Williams de Ciudadanos del Desierto Contra la Contaminación.

En primer lugar, el grupo debe contratar a un asesor técnico para explicar el alto volumen de datos de los miembros del comité técnico y revisarlos antes de tomar acción.

El comité también debe seleccionar un copresidente de la comunidad para unirse a Lee y a Barry Wallerstein director del Distrito de Gestión de Calidad del Aire de la Costa Sur para la moderación de las reuniones y establecer el tono para los debates.

Mirando alrededor de la sala de la semana pasada, Mark López con East Yard Communities señaló que sólo una cuarta parte de 37 miembros de la comisión no representan ya sea a un funcionario público o una agencia pública.

“Es un poco preocupante”, dijo.

Pero de acuerdo con Lee, más de un tercio de los miembros del comité son de la comunidad.

“Realmente tratamos de ser inclusivos”, dijo. “Quiero que el grupo sea eficaz”, agregó, explicando por qué no cree que sea una buena idea agregar más personas a la comisión.

La reunión del jueves pasado demostró que el grupo refleja muchos puntos de vista, y que los miembros están dispuestos a hablar con franqueza acerca de nuestro trabajo, dijo Nax.

Marxen dijo a los miembros del comité que ellos están encargados de comunicar y educar a sus respectivos constituyentes sobre el proceso de cierre, que comenzó formalmente en abril.

El cierre permanente viene después de años de violaciones de residuos peligrosos por Exide que expusieron a más de 110,000 personas en los barrios y ciudades del Este de Los Ángeles a Maywood a niveles tóxicos de arsénico y plomo, productos químicos conocidos por causar cáncer y trastornos neurológicos, problemas de aprendizaje y otras cuestiones de salud.

En marzo, la oficina del Fiscal de EE.UU. llegó a un acuerdo con Exide que permitiría a la empresa y a sus ejecutivos evitar la persecución penal a cambio del cierre definitivo de la planta de Vernon y la limpieza total del sitio y propiedades que hayan sido contaminadas.

La primera fase de cierre que incluirá la demolición de edificios, se espera que tome entre 19 a 22 meses, según el DTSC.

La próxima reunión consultiva se llevará a cabo en junio en la ciudad de Maywood. Las reuniones están abiertas al público.

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

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.

DTSC Discloses Soil Sampling Results to Residents

May 7, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Over 8,600 soil samples taken from properties north and south of the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon provided no indication that there is a defined pattern of lead distribution in the area, according to officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Both low and high concentrations of lead – a chemical known to cause neurological damage – were found throughout the 146 residential properties tested in the expanded assessment area, according to the data used to see how far lead concentrations extend from the plant site.

“We need to continue to do our homework,” said Rizgar Ghazi, division chief of permitting at DTSC. But “we still hold Exide responsible,” he assured EGP. “We are just trying to see what Exide is responsible for and make them clean it up.”

The testing was conducted as part of DTSC’s 2013 stipulation order with Exide, which requires the company to test and cleanup any contamination caused by their emissions.

Soil removal and remediation was completed at 67 homes near the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon.  (DTSC)

Soil removal and remediation was completed at 67 homes near the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon. (DTSC)

In March, the U.S. Attorney’s Office struck a deal with Exide to close the Vernon plant in lieu of facing criminal charges related to decades of hazardous waste violations and exposing over 110,000 eastside residents to cancer-causing emissions.

On Wednesday night, DTSC officials met one-on-one with residents whose homes have already been tested for lead to explain the results of those tests.

Saturday meetings have been planned for later in the month and in early June to accommodate residents who could not attend Wednesday’s meeting.

“We are working in a very complex environment,” said Ghazi. “This is the first of a series of meetings,” he told EGP.

The additional data was collected late last year when the state agency began cleaning up some of the properties in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Maywood that had previously been tested for contaminated soil. According to DTSC, 60 to 80 samples, taken at different depths and increments, were obtained from each property.

Ghazi said the agency did not find any concentrations of lead “that would constitute a danger.”

He told EGP that the industrial landscape in eastside communities, which includes a high number of freeways, rail yards and other similar industries, has contributed to the concentrations of metals and chemicals in the area.

In late 2013, testing began in the original assessment area that included 217 residential properties. As of last week, the cleanup at 76 homes has been completed and over 3,900 tons of soil removed from the properties.

DTSC officials expanded the original assessment area an additional mile from both the northern and southern borders based on modules prepared by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to determined which areas would most likely be impacted by Exide emissions.

Last month, eastside residents complained to DTSC Director Barbara Lee that the assessment area should be enlarged to include more communities near the Vernon plant.

Responding to complaints from residents that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears over the years, DTSC has announced the formation of an advisory committee to oversee the agency’s closure of the Exide plant and cleanup of surrounding residential properties.

DTSC is currently accepting applications from people interested in serving on the committee, however the size of the committee has not yet been decided.

Ghazi told EGP the committee will be all-inclusive and there are no requirements for members. However, he stressed the agency would prefer residents who live in the assessment area.

“This partnership will provide an open dialogue for the community to be apart of the process,” he said.

By May 15, Exide must submit to DTSC its plan for safely removing buildings on the site and for the clean up of hazardous waste, including soil and groundwater contamination.

DTSC will review the plan to determine if there are any deficiencies that need to be addressed. Once approved, the agency will prepare a CEQA document and present the draft plan to the public.

DTSC expects to hold public hearings on the closure plan and CEQA document by Fall 2015.

The demolition of the buildings and structures at the Exide plant is expected to begin Spring 2016 and continue for 19 to 24 months.

DTSC Director Apologizes to Eastside Residents

April 10, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

[Updated: April 16, 12p.m.]

“I’m sorry.” Two words Eastside residents never thought they would hear from the state agency charged with regulating a controversial Vernon-based acid-lead battery recycler found to have repeatedly violated toxic chemical air emissions standards.

For the first time since taking the helm of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Director Barbara Lee personally addressed a public meeting discussing the now-closed Exide Technologies plant. DTSC has been heavily criticized for “failing” to protect the public from arsenic and lead emissions, chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological damage.

“I know many feel the department has failed you, I want to start of by saying I’m very sorry,” Lee told hundreds of residents and environmental activists during a meeting April 9 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to discuss Exide’s closure plan.

The tone at last week’s meeting was quieter and less combative then past meetings, but skepticism and mistrust still hung heavy in the air.

“We want to know what happened …we want to know who is responsible,” demanded Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justices.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee apologizes to eastside residents Thursday at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee apologizes to eastside residents Thursday at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Lopez asked Lee if she would consider opening a criminal investigation into DTSC’s handling of the Vernon plant, which it allowed to operate on an interim permit for decades despite being found to have exposed eastside residents to cancer-causing toxins.

Lee did not at first directly respond to the request, instead denying any criminal activity on the part of the department, but Lopez pressed on.

“We want accountability. What happened before was not your fault, but moving forward is all your responsibility,” said Lopez, drawing loud applause from the approximately 200 people at the meeting.

“Would you be willing to let me think about it?” Lee asked.

Dozens of members of the Los Angeles Latino Business Chamber of Commerce attended the Distinguished Speakers Series event April 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Dozens of members of the Los Angeles Latino Business Chamber of Commerce attended the Distinguished Speakers Series event April 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Lopez agreed, explaining he didn’t expect the DTSC director to make a decision right then and there. “I just want to make sure you respond on the record in front of all of us,” he said.

Lee was appointed to head DTSC about four months ago and was not part of the protracted battle to shutter the troubled plant, but said she understands why residents mistrust the agency.

“It’s important we do not let this happen again,” she said, promising to do things differently moving forward.

For more than a decade, area residents complained to DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District about Exide, but it took an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office to permanently close down the facility.

Federal authorities announced last month that they had struck a deal to close the plant in exchange for Exide and its executives avoiding criminal prosecution for their illegal handling of hazardous waste. The deal requires Exide to pay the entire cost to clean its plant and homes in the surrounding community found to have been contaminated. DTSC will oversee the closure and clean up.

“We won folks,” Monsignor John Moretta happily told the crowd.

However, not everyone is as convinced or ready to forgive.

“I don’t want to hear I’m sorry because nobody is more sorry than me,” said a tearful Terry Cano before she shared that her father had died from cancer she believes was caused by Exide’s emissions.

“You’re telling me this is the best you can do,” she said, angry that there will be no criminal prosecutions.

Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano shared her concerns with the way DTSC handled the Exide plant in Vernon last week at Resurrection Church. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano shared her concerns with the way DTSC handled the Exide plant in Vernon last week at Resurrection Church. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The meeting drew residents from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Commerce and Huntington Park, the area most heavily impacted by Exide generated pollution. Several people said the deal did not do enough to compensate the people harmed by the Vernon plant.

Teresa Marquez told Lee she believes the director wants to move the agency forward, but questioned whether any DTSC employee had been fired over the agency’s handling of the facility.

Lee said DTSC is being overhauled and new deputy directors have been brought in to replace staff no longer at the agency.

That prompted Lopez to again push for a criminal investigation.

“We want to know where they are now and if they are working for another similar agency making those same [bad] decisions,” he said. There is no victory until a closer look is taken at the systemic problems that allowed a company like Exide to keep polluting the community for so long, without that, real change is not possible, Lopez said.

A Huntington Park resident asked Lee to consider expanding the area being tested for lead and arsenic to include more nearby communities. Currently, testing is focused on East L.A., Boyle Heights and Maywood, which Lee explained was determined by AQMD modeling that identified the areas most likely to be contaminated.

“Predictions also come in the form of weather forecasts and they’re not always right,” the resident responded.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, pictured right, apologizes to eastside residents at Resurrection Church April 9 (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, pictured right, apologizes to eastside residents at Resurrection Church April 9 (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Moving forward, Exide has to submit a closure/post closure plan to DTSC by May 15. The agency will review the plans for compliance then present the plan to the public for comment sometime in the fall. Removal of the buildings and structures at the site is expected to start in spring 2016 and take 19-24 months to complete.

“For too many years we did not listen well to you,” Lee told the audience, acknowledging that many residents are not yet ready to trust the agencies responsible for regulating Exide.

“I don’t expect by standing here I will change that, I have to earn your trust,” she said. “I can’t promise you I will always get it right, but I will always give it my best. I hope you will be ready to take one step forward with us,” she said.

“It’s refreshing to hear a different tone,” remarked Maywood Councilman Oscar Magaña.

But for Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez, the fight is far from over.

“We haven’t won,” he said, “we just threw the first punch that will change the momentum.”

 

 

AQMD Rule Targets Rendering Plants

April 9, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Driving near any of the five rendering plants in Vernon may cause you to wrinkle your nose and quickly roll up your windows to avoid the unpleasant odor coming from the facilities.

Vernon has been home to slaughterhouses and rendering plants like Farmer John for years, but while the city is mostly industrial, it is surrounded by residential neighborhoods in nearby cities.

Environmentalists say local residents have complained for decades about the stench coming from the facilities.

Now, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is stepping in and has proposed a new rule aimed at reducing the smelly emissions, changes a Vernon committee opposed in a letter sent to the agency.

 

Vernon is home to Farmer Johns, makers of the “Dodger Dog.” (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Vernon is home to Farmer John, makers of the “Dodger Dog.” (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Rule (PR) 415, first proposed in November 2014, would require new and existing rendering facilities, which convert animal waste into other usable commodities, to make equipment changes and implement best management practices.

The proposed rule, set to go before AQMD’s Governing Board July 10, is the result of findings by the Clean Communities Plan for Boyle Heights pilot program, which identified the air quality issue in communities near Vernon. Representatives of public officials, environmental agencies, labor unions and the medical community are part of the pilot.

“The very consistent, terrible smell has covered the southeast and forced people indoors for years,” said Mark Lopez of the environmental justice group East Yard Communities.

There are currently five rendering facilities in the entire Los Angeles Basin, all of them in Vernon and relatively close to one another. They are adjacent to the communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Commerce.

According to AQMD, untreated emissions can be detected up to 20 miles away.

“Vernon was set up as an industrial city,” before homes were built in the surrounding communities, explains Leonard Grossberg, Vernon’s director of health and environmental control. “Now we need to be able to live in a symbiotic way,” he said, explaining the decision to weigh in on behalf of the city businesses that would be impacted.

Grossberg told EGP the city and area businesses have made odor control a priority for maintaining quality of life for their neighbors, but added the proposed rule changes fail to take into consideration when the smells are produced and how they can best be mitigated.

Last week, the Green Vernon Commission – created by the city to address sustainability and environmental responsibility issues ¬– sent a letter to AQMD asking the agency to delay the rulemaking process for 180 days to give the facilities time to present “vital information” they feel the agency did not consider.

“Businesses did not hear from AQMD until after they enacted the rules,” Grossberg said. “It was all done really without the input of businesses.”

Peter Corselli, one of the members of the Vernon Green Commission, told EGP the rule is a step in the wrong direction.

“This rule is based on nothing but a completely subjective nose,” he said.

Although Corselli, vice president of the U.S. Growers Cold Storage, will not be affected by the rendering rule, he told EGP he is concerned the stricter regulations will drive business out of town.

“At some point they [regulators] are going to push too hard and the businesses are going to pack up and move,” he said.

Grossberg told EGP he believes AQMD’s extra scrutiny and stricter air quality guidelines are the result of the long battle over emissions from Vernon-based lead battery recycler Exide Technologies, which last month struck a deal to shut down permanently to avoid criminal prosecution.

“Right now the public has the ear of AQMD,” Grossberg said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw Exide as a triumph and are now moving on to the next target,” Corselli told EGP.

AQMD disputes that claim and says a plan to address rendering plant odors has long been a priority for the community.

“The issue of rendering odors has been around for decades and is not a new issue,” AQMD officials told EGP in an email. “The issues at the Exide facility are completely independent and unrelated to this rule.”

According to AQMD, the agency has received comments from affected communities and requests for AQMD to take action.

AQMD would not say if it will delay the process, but did note that “staff is actively considering all comments received” and that a public hearing scheduled for May 1 has been pushed back to July.

The city’s five rendering plants estimate complying with the rule changes could cost each of the facilities around $1 million, said Grossberg, even though all the facilities are currently complying with air quality standards.

Citing information from the city’s fire department, the commission expressed concern that construction requirements, such as the enclosure of all processing areas, would violate the city’s fire code.

“The Vernon Fire Marshall would object to enclosing any processing areas as it would make fighting grease/oil fires more difficult,” reads the letter to AQMD.

Upgrades could require the plants to close during construction, putting 800 rendering jobs at stake, according to the commission.

Farmer John is the one of the largest employers in the city, employing nearly 1,300 workers. Corselli told EGP further regulating what is essentially a nuisance causing no direct harm, will kill business in the city.

“If we can truck out of California, we can truck into California,” said the frustrated business owner.

The rule change would require the facilities to implement new best management practices within 90 days; and more complicated requirements affecting facility permits within 180 days. Failure to comply could lead to closure, something city officials want to avoid.

“We need to think of all those employees who could lose their jobs,” said Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra. “We want to keep the jobs here in Vernon.”

AQMD evaluated odor complaints in the communities surrounding Vernon over a ten-year period. According to the agency, about 35 complaints were received during that time, however, AQMD inspectors could not trace the odor to a specific facility because of their close proximity to one another.

Similarly, according to Grossberg, the city of Vernon says it receives less than half a dozen complaints a year.

The small number of complaints does not justify such an expensive change in the rules, businesses point out. However, AQMD staff believes the “number of complaints is not a good indicator of the impact of odors on area residents.”

AQMD believes the long history of rendering plants in Vernon has caused longtime residents to feel the odors are a part of the area landscape that they cannot be changed.

During past community meetings, staff heard from residents who filed complaints in the past but saw no change, “resulting in a general sense from community members that reporting odors does not yield results.”

While Vernon’s 7-person committee does include representatives of the rendering plants, other members of the committee say they are concerned the proposed rule change is a slippery slope that could eventually lead to further regulation in other areas, such as food processors and bakeries that also emit odors.

“Instead of working with the businesses to come up with a solution, AQMD is coming in with their own solution,” Grossberg told EGP.

“Vernon is here for a reason…so the smells and industry didn’t bother society,” said Corselli. “Now residential is encroaching on Vernon and attacking [the city] for what it has always been.”

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