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 .
State regulators ordered a partial shut-down of an Industry lead-battery-recycling plant, saying operators failed to install a leak-detection system in a hazardous-waste containment building, health officials said Friday.
Quemetco was ordered to take the containment building out of service and submit a plan to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control for correcting the violation and a schedule for completing the work.
“The leak-detection system is a layer of sand on a thick plastic material located between the concrete floor and concrete foundation,” according to DTSC documents released this week.
“Quemetco’s violation stems from the lack of a way to monitor whether leaks are occurring through the floor and into the layer of sand. Tests performed last week during a scheduled
inspection determined the system did not comply with regulatory requirements.”
Quemetco officials could not be reached for immediate comment.
Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said the agency is working to test properties near the plant at 720 S. Seventh Ave.
“We are currently analyzing soil and water samples immediately beyond the facility’s perimeter to assess potential contamination from the plant,” Bellomo said. “We will work closely with DTSC and our partner agencies to determine next steps and to ensure this site receives the urgent action needed to protect health.”
County health officials have established a community-information hotline for residents near the plant, at (213) 738-3232.
For several years now, Joe Gonzalez of Boyle Heights has voiced his complaints to officials with the Department of Toxic Substances Control; repeating himself at nearly every Exide-related meeting he attended.
“They know me by now, they’ve heard it all before,” he told a City Terrace resident Monday outside the latest public meeting seeking input on the decontamination process for residential properties contaminated with lead by the now shuttered battery recycler.
On Monday, for the first time, his and the statements of others were recorded for the official public record on the cleanup process, something Gonzalez has urged DTSC officials to do for years.
“Regulars” like him have attended dozens of public hearings and meetings since air quality regulators forced the Vernon-based plant to suspend operations in March 2013 and to inform over 110,000 east and southeast Los Angeles County residents of their elevated cancer risks due to toxic emissions.
Gonzalez contends there would already be an accurate and transparent record of what residents have said during the closure process if their hundreds of hours of testimony and public comment had been videotaped or recorded for the official record.
As a result, “There is no oral history of what we’ve been through” for the public or elected officials to refer back to, adds Teresa Marquez of Boyle Heights.
That changed Monday, however, when residents and environmental activists spoke on the record, often repeating what they’ve said at past meet meetings about what DTSC should consider in preparing for what some environmental experts believe could be the largest toxic cleanup in state history.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), DTSC is required to consider and release its cleanup plan and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for public review, which is to be documented by a court-mandated recorder. The document will cover the potential effects of removing and transporting lead tainted soil during the cleanup of homes within 1.7 miles of the Exide plant. The same process took place when the state agency presented an
EIR outlining how Exide plans to clean the now permanently closed facility in Vernon.
“I’m glad, in this case, there is a formal record” of what we want state regulators to do, Marquez told EGP.
Unlike recent scoping meetings in Huntington Park and Commerce where attendance was light, well over 100 people attended Monday’s meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.
“We have attended meeting after meeting,” observed Rev. Monsignor John Moretta. “Your presence is important,” Moretta emphasized.
Comments from all three scoping meetings focused on concerns that the residential cleanup itself is not being done efficiently and thoroughly. A large number of residents at the meetings have asked that the 1.7-mile radius be expanded to include more communities.
“Expand the scope,” demanded David Petit, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Lead doesn’t decide to follow one side of the street but not the other.”
Other residents asked that the state agency consider decontaminating the inside of homes and parkways, and that the cleanup be done block by block to avoid re-exposure.
“You can’t just clean one property here and there and expect the whole neighborhood to be cleaned,” said Gonzalez.
Drawing outrage from many was the protracted timeline for starting the cleanup, which cannot begin until the EIR process is completed in June 2017.
So far, 236 of the estimated 10,000 homes possibly contaminated with lead have been cleaned.
“We still have a long way to go,” noted Carlos Montes. “It took years for us to force them to close the plant down and it will take years for them to finish the cleanup.”
Terry Cano, a lifelong Boyle Heights resident, has repeatedly told DTSC officials her family has suffered many health issues over the years. Her block is home to residents suffering with various forms of cancers, she claims are the result of constant lead exposure.
“I have never seen any plan … [detailing what can be done to protect] the health of the community,” Cano told state regulators. “We need to know the cumulative effects of being exposed to toxins.”
Cano is also angry that the public cannot access the results of soil tests taken from area schools, a complaint made by many residents since the fallout from Exide’s lead and arsenic emissions became public.
“I have asked this specifically, that needs to be available now,” Cano demanded.
Gonzalez told EGP he would not be happy until minutes from all Exide related meetings are available to the public.
“There’s a court reporter now, [but] only because it is required under CEQA,” he pointed out.
Montes told EGP there may now be a paper trail of their concerns, but he’s not sure where it will lead.
“It’s great that we have a record of our concerns and complaints,” he said. “But we will have to wait to see if they do anything about it.”
The public’s final chance to weigh in on the scope of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) being prepared for the massive cleanup of lead and other toxic chemicals from the Exide battery recycling plan in Vernon will come next week during a meeting in Boyle Heights.
People wanting to comment on what the EIR process should include, can do so July 11 at Resurrection Church from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control – the lead agency handling the decontamination process — has already held two scoping meetings on the topic, one in Huntington Park, the other in Commerce. Attendance was light at both meetings.
The Exide plant, which recycled 25,000 lead-acid batteries a day until it halted operations in March 2013, released toxic emissions that exposed over 110,000 east and Southeast Los Angeles County residents to high levels of cancer-causing lead.
The cleanup of homes found within 1.7 miles of the former battery recycler is not expected to begin until mid 2017. Before any shovels hit the ground, however, DTSC must prepare an environmental impact report that will disclose the potential effects of removing and transporting lead tainted soil and other contaminants away from homes.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), DTSC is required to consider and release the cleanup plan and its environmental impact for public review.
The EIR process, which involves public review, meetings and hearings, is expected to be completed in July 2017.
Resurrection Church is located at 3324 E. Opal St. Los Angeles, 90023.
East and southeast Los Angeles County residents had an opportunity Saturday to have a say in the process to decontaminate their homes and other properties tainted with lead from the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon, in what is expected to be California’s largest cleanup effort ever.
However, while more than 100,000 people may have been put at risk from the toxic exposure, only about a dozen people showed up to the first meeting where their comments on how to go about removing the contamination from their homes would actually be on the record.
Lea este artículo en Español: Pocos Residentes Asisten a Reunión de Limpieza Residencial de Exide
For some residents, Saturday’s meeting at Raul R. Perez Memorial Park in Huntington Park was the first Exide-related meeting they had ever attended. For others, it was the first time they would hear that their homes and families could possibly be in danger from exposure to cancer-causing arsenic and lead.
Lucia Kikunaga of Maywood told officials from the Department of Toxic Substance Control she was stunned when she received the mailer informing her of the meeting and that there could possibly be toxic chemicals in her home.
Kikunaga’s revelation was surprising given that there have been dozens of meetings and hearings over the last two years regarding the health hazard caused by the battery recycling plan in Vernon. Hundreds of hours of testimony and protests have taken place to date.
Of the handful of residents who spoke Saturday, a majority expressed concern over what they claim is a lack of outreach to their community.
“Public outreach is a key component in our efforts to keep the community informed about the Exide cleanup,” DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax told EGP, responding to the criticism. “We use a variety of methods to communicate in both English and Spanish.”
The state agency has sent out thousands of postcards, canvassed neighborhoods, set up drop-in information centers, a hotline and used social media to reach out to residents in the impacted areas, he added.
Yet, Kikunaga wasn’t the only person at the meeting to say they were unaware of the Exide catastrophe or efforts to clean up the aftermath.
“I always knew there was major pollution in our communities because we live in an industrial area, but this is very serious,” longtime Maywood resident Zoila Flores said in disbelief.
DTSC plans to test the soil of 10,000 properties within 1.7-miles of the Exide plant and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead by July 2018. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), before cleanup can begin DTSC must prepare an environmental impact report that will disclose the potential effects of mitigation efforts such as soil removal and transporting tainted material away from properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon.
On Saturday, it was clear that residents like Leonor Casillas still need basic information before they can begin to give input into what the cleanup process should look like.
Casillas told DTSC staff she had no idea there could be lead in the backyard of her Maywood home. She’s worried there may be a correlation with her husband’s cancer.
“What are the health impacts? And what else is going on in our area,” she asked Saturday.
DTSC, the lead regulatory agency charged with the cleanup, has already tested more than 2,000 homes and cleaned up over 200 homes within the preliminary investigation area, according to the agency. Residents from surrounding areas have repeatedly asked that DTSC expand the area where they are testing properties for lead, claiming the danger is much wider spread.
A second meeting to gather input from the public will be held today, June 30 at 6:30p.m at Commerce City Hall.
The EIR process, which involves public review, meetings and hearings, is expected to be completed around July 2017, a timeline state officials call “aggressive.” EIRs tend to take at least a year and a half, says DTSC’s Kimberly Hudson.
“It is common to extend the public review period,” she added, meaning the process could go longer if community members feel more input is required.
In the meantime, Flores told DTSC they should not forget about impacted areas like Maywood, just because it’s home to a large Latino and undocumented population,
“With so much effort we have been paying for our homes,” she said about the struggle to buy a home. “When it comes to selling our homes, what is going to happen,” she asked, worried the contamination could cause her home value to drop.
“Some of us are scared because we don’t know what the cleanup process is and we don’t want our properties taken from us,” echoed Manuel Borjas, referring to the fear among some residents that the process could lead to them losing their homes through eminent domain or being forced to leave their homes for a long period.
DTSC officials, however, assured Borjas and others in the room that the cleanup process takes less than 5 days and homes would not be damaged or taken through eminent domain.
“Well I don’t see any of that in your packet,” responded Borjas. “That is very important information for the people in my community who are not here because they are scared,” he said.
Looking around the room and seeing so few residents present, Kikunaga told EGP that residents must to do their part to hold the state accountable.
“I know nuestra raza, I tried to encourage my neighbors to attend and some just don’t care.”
Residentes del este y sureste de Los Ángeles tuvieron la oportunidad el sábado de opinar en el proceso para descontaminar sus casas y otras propiedades contaminadas con plomo procedente de la planta Exide de Vernon, la cual ya se encuentra cerrada, en lo que se espera que sea el esfuerzo de limpieza más grande en la historia de California.
Sin embargo, mientras que más de 100.000 personas pudieron haber estado expuestas al riesgo de sustancias tóxicas, sólo alrededor de una docena se presentaron a la primera reunión en la que sus comentarios acerca de la descontaminación de sus hogares quedaría en los expedientes.
Read this article in English: Few Attend Exide Meeting On Residential Cleanup Plan
Para algunos residentes, la reunión del sábado en el parque Raul R. Pérez en Huntington Park fue la primera reunión relacionada con Exide a la que habían asistido. Para otros, era la primera vez que se enteraban de que sus hogares y familias podrían posiblemente estar en peligro de la exposición al arsénico y plomo causantes de cáncer.
Lucía Kikunaga de Maywood dijo a los funcionarios del Departamento de Control de Sustancias Tóxicas que se sorprendió cuando recibió la nota por correo informándole de la reunión y que, posiblemente, podría haber químicos tóxicos en su casa.
La revelación de Kikunaga fue sorprendente teniendo en cuenta que han habido decenas de reuniones y audiencias en los últimos dos años en relación con el peligro para la salud causado por la planta de reciclaje de baterías en Vernon. Cientos de horas de declaraciones y protestas se han llevado a cabo hasta la fecha.
“La divulgación pública es un componente clave en nuestros esfuerzos para mantener informada a la comunidad sobre la limpieza de Exide”, dijo a EGP el portavoz de DTSC Sandy Nax. “Utilizamos una variedad de métodos para comunicarnos en inglés y en español”.
La agencia estatal ha enviado miles de postales, ha hecho sondeos en los vecindarios, ha creado servicios de información, una línea telefónica y utiliza las redes sociales para llegar a los residentes en las áreas afectadas, añadió.
Sin embargo, Kikunaga no era la única persona en la reunión en decir que no tenían conocimiento de la catástrofe de Exide o los esfuerzos para limpiar las secuelas.
“Siempre supe que había mucha contaminación en nuestras comunidades porque vivimos en una zona industrial, pero esto es muy grave”, dijo con incredulidad Zoila Flores, residente de Maywood desde hace mucho tiempo.
De los pocos residentes que hablaron el sábado una mayoría expresó su preocupación por lo que consideran una falta de alcance a la comunidad.
DTSC planea examinar el suelo de 10.000 propiedades dentro de 1,7 millas de la planta Exide y limpiará las 2.500 viviendas con los más altos niveles de plomo para julio de 2018. Bajo la Ley de Calidad Ambiental de California (CEQA), antes de que pueda comenzar la limpieza DTSC debe preparar un informe de impacto ambiental (EIR) que revelaría los efectos potenciales de los esfuerzos de mitigación tales como la eliminación de la tierra contaminada y el transporte de material contaminado lejos de propiedades en Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, el Este de los Ángeles, Huntington Park y Vernon.
El sábado, estaba claro que residentes como Leonor Casillas todavía necesitan información básica antes de que puedan aportar información de cómo debería ser el proceso.
Casillas le dijo al personal de DTSC que ella no tenía idea de que podría haber plomo en el patio de su casa en Maywood. Está preocupada que pueda haber una correlación con el cáncer de su marido.
“¿Cuáles son los efectos en la salud? ¿Y qué más está pasando en nuestra área?”, preguntó el sábado.
Una segunda reunión para recabar la opinión del público se llevará a cabo hoy, 30 de junio a las 6:30pm en el ayuntamiento de Commerce.
El proceso del EIR que implica revisión pública, reuniones y audiencias, se espera que esté terminado en julio de 2017, una línea de tiempo que los funcionarios estatales llaman “agresiva”. Los EIR tienden a tomar por lo menos un año y medio, dijo Kimberly Hudson de DTSC.
“Es común extender el período de revisión pública”, añadió, es decir, que el proceso podría durar más tiempo si los miembros de la comunidad sienten que se requiere más información.
Mientras tanto, Flores le dijo a DTSC que no deben olvidarse de las áreas impactadas como Maywood, simplemente porque es el hogar de una gran población latina e indocumentados,
“Con tanto esfuerzo hemos estado pagando nuestros hogares”, dijo sobre el esfuerzo de comprar una casa. “Cuando se trate de vender nuestros hogares, ¿qué va a suceder?”, preguntó, preocupada que la contaminación podría causar que el valor de su vivienda caiga.
“Algunos de nosotros tenemos miedo porque no sabemos que es el proceso de limpieza y no queremos que nos quiten nuestras propiedades”, hizo eco Manuel Borjas, refiriéndose al temor entre algunos residentes de que el proceso podría llevarlos a perder su hogares a través de dominio eminente o que se podrían ver obligados a abandonar sus hogares durante un largo periodo.
Los funcionarios de DTSC aseguraron a Borjas y otros en la reunión que el proceso de limpieza tarda menos de 5 días y las casas no serían dañados o tomadas a través de dominio eminente.
“Bueno, yo no veo nada de eso en su paquete”, respondió Borjas. “Esa es una información muy importante para la gente de mi comunidad que no está aquí porque tiene miedo”, dijo.
Mirando alrededor de la habitación y al ver tan pocos residentes presentes, Kikunaga le dijo a EGP que los residentes deben poner de su parte para hacer responsable al estado.
“Conozco a nuestra raza, traté de animar a mis vecinos a asistir y a algunos simplemente no les importa”.
When the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials first held a hearing on the decontamination of the now shuttered Exide Technologies facility, eastside residents made a turnaround trip to the Capitol where they demanded state legislators step up and push for funds needed to address the cleanup. Five months later, with $176.6 million now set aside by Gov. Brown for the cleanup effort, it was the Committee’s turn to pay residents, which they did last week, holding their meeting not far from the Vernon plant.
As is customary, officials from the state, county and city of Los Angeles updated the committee on their respective cleanup efforts and community outreach. But residents who live in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Vernon and Huntington Park – areas believed to be contaminated with lead and arsenic – told the committee that those reports were not giving legislators a full picture of what’s really going on.
Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council President Vera Del Pozo said she was tired of hearing officials and DTSC go talk about things the community has heard repeatedly.
“Stop telling us what you’ve done and just clean this up now,” she said, prompting applause from the audience.
One after another, residents renewed their calls for a quicker, more efficient remediation process, starting with a cleanup plan they said should have already been completed.
“There are many ongoing and serious problems that need to be addressed,” said Gladys Limon, staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment during the assembly committee’s meeting at Roosevelt High School.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the approval of the cleanup plan. The agency, charged with overseeing the investigation and remediation of the 1.7-mile preliminary investigation area, is soliciting input from the public before drafting the cleanup plan.
The public comment period begins June 16 and will continue for 30 days, ending July 18. Once the draft impact report is completed the public will have 45 days to review the document and provide comments that will be used to prepare the final report. Two scoping meetings to gather public comment are planned for June 25 at Perez Park in Huntington Park and June 30 at Commerce City Hall.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee explained that under the current CEQA timeline, cleanup, which could end up being the largest in the state’s history, would not begin until June 2017.
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, urged legislators to force DTSC to expand the investigation area to 4.5 miles, a demand repeated by dozens of residents living just outside the zone.
“We’re leaving people behind,” Williams stressed.
Roosevelt student Michael Valencia said he lives two blocks from the meeting site, yet his home and the school itself are outside the preliminary cleanup area.
Dr. Brian Johnston, chair of emergency medicine at White Memorial, asked that the agency do more soil sampling beyond the 1.7 miles. He cited a 2010 study conducted by the Air Quality Management District that stated Exide’s cloud of toxins could reach as far as Altadena and Palos Verdes.
Lee explained that results from soil samples collected as far as 4.5 miles from the Vernon plant led the agency to conclude lead emissions could have traveled 1.7 miles from the facility. She reminded the committee that the state’s multi-million loan can only be used to address remediation in that area.
Many residents, however, complained that the agency’s report was a repeat of an “infomercial” they’ve heard many times before, and even argued that DTSC lacks the expertise to carry out the cleanup.
“[The problem] is bigger than what they’re trying to paint,” said a frustrated Joe Gonzalez.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who sat in for committee members unable to attend, said that many of the community’s complaints are valid.
“We need to expand the area,” she told EGP. “We definitely need to do that.”
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who also sat in on the committee, told EGP he expects the committee to include what was discussed at last week’s meeting in an end of the year report on all the hearings.
“This is one more example of us being more inclusive,” Santiago said. “It demonstrates legislators are taking this seriously, putting pressure and holding DTSC accountable.”
Garcia told EGP she plans to use the public testimony to ask the agency better questions.
“We get regular updates from DTSC but it is through their eyes and their perspective,” she said.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis reminded legislators that more funds would be required to not only decontaminate the area but to also educate the community about the dangers of lead exposure, known to cause neurological diseases, learning disabilities, cancer and other serious health problems.
“This can’t happen again,” Solis said of the contamination. “There needs to be an investigation.”
Lee defended herself and the agency, reminding the committee and the public that in April 2013 Exide was ordered to suspend operations and in March 2015, months after she took over as director, the plant was forced to close permanently.
Since then, 1,800 homes have been sampled, 3,400 access agreements have been signed and over 200 homes have been decontaminated, she said, adding DTSC currently samples 135 properties a week but expects to increase to 200 per week in the coming month.
“We have much to do but we have made progress,” said Lee.
In the minority, one resident thanked the agency for cleaning her East Los Angeles home. But most residents felt their demands and frustration were justified.
“Just because we are asking for more doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge what you have already done,” said Boyle Heights resident Irene Peña.
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, told EGP the group encountered problems while working with the agency to gather access agreements, an effort they do not plan to continue.
“We have had to push every step of the way to get to the point we are at now,” he said. “It is time for DTSC to step up and accept the challenge to do better.”