Gov. Takes ‘Environmental Justice’ Tour of Areas Ravaged by Pollution

May 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Gov. Jerry Brown got a close-up look Tuesday at the traffic, pollution, and industries that have long wreaked havoc on the health of residents living in southeast Los Angeles County.

It was a rare visit by the governor who has in the been criticized for being more interested in opening casinos than protecting the health of residents living in cities like Commerce and Bell Gardens and other east and southeast neighborhoods.

Brown was there at the behest of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who took the governor on a tour of some of the most environmentally challenged areas in her 58th Assembly District.

The tour included stops around the 710 overpass at Florence, the perimeter of the Commerce rail yard, Bandini Park and the brownfield at Garfield and Gage (in Commerce).

Former Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa once told EGP that Commerce is the country’s “third largest port,” referring to the number of shipping containers, diesel trucks and trains that pass through the city, bordered by the Long Beach 710 and Santa Ana 5 freeways and a network of rail yards where trains abut neighborhood homes, schools and parks, as well as industrial warehouses.

As a result, several studies in recent years have designated the region as having the most harmful air pollution in the state, or at least being among the top 10 most polluted areas to live.

“Today, the Governor got to breathe the same air as I have all my life,” said Garcia in statement following the tour.

Gov. Brown “looked across the brownfields that surround my communities and met with my neighbors who share our communities’ concerns,” said Garcia who grew up in Bell Gardens.

“…It’s important to actually see and breathe, first-hand, the issues that many Californians contend with their entire lives. It’s not all palm trees and beaches or redwood forests and snow-packed ski resorts,” Garcia said

Brown also took time for a closed door, roundtable discussion at the Neighborhood Youth Center in Bell Gardens where he met with a specially selected group of environmental activists working to improve conditions in predominately Latino communities.

The tour and discussion were closed to the media.

Many of the activists who met with the governor were involved in the fight to close the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant, which for decades spewed toxic chemicals into the air, contaminating as many as 10,000 properties in Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Huntington Park and other areas nearby.

State regulators were highly criticized for allowing Exide to operate for decades on a temporary permit and with near impunity, and for their slow response to cleaning up the contamination, a process that is expected to take years to complete.

Local officials and community activist demanded action from the governor, but he refused to engage publicly in the process, at one point sparking a demonstration at the grand opening of a Bell Gardens hotel where angry protesters carrying a 10-foot tall papier-mâché effigy of the governor called for him to step up.

“Governor Brown comes to Bell Gardens to acknowledge the expansion of the Bicycle Casino but has not acknowledged the contamination of Exide Technologies,” Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said at the time.

The tour and discussion come as State Legislators consider extending California’s cap and trade program, which both the governor and Garcia support.

Brown has made the environment and climate change the corner stones of his administration, and an example for the rest of the world. Political observers often refer to Brown’s actions on the environment as his “most important legacy.”

However, like many local environmental justice groups, Garcia does not believe the current program does enough to protect local communities from pollution-related health hazards.

She is pushing for air quality regulations to be added to the next phase of the program, and has introduced AB 378 in hopes of seeing so-called benefits from program reach the overlooked constituents she represents.

“When we talk about California leading the world on climate change, I agree, but we’ve got to really lead by example and address the real and ongoing ramifications in our own backyards at the same time,” Garcia said.

The assemblywoman pointed out to the governor that environmental policies the state takes pride in are not visible in her backyard. “You don’t see solar panels on rooftops,” she told the governor, reported the L.A. Times. “Whether it’s electrification or hybrid cars, or cleaner air, you don’t see it. None of those things have been felt here,” Garcia said.

“… All Californians should be entitled to an equal piece of justice for their environment. That’s what I believe in and what I shared with the Governor today,” said Garcia Tuesday.

“It’s not often any Governor spends a day in my backyard or any working class community of color, but I believe this goes to show Governor Brown’s willingness to work with us while we seek an environmental solution that will benefit every single Californian.”

Gov. Brown Pardons Deported Veterans

April 20, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

California Gov. Jerry Brown took unprecedented action by pardoning three deported war veterans for crimes committed when they returned to civilian life, bringing them hope they will be allowed to return to the U.S., the place they call home.

The coalition, Honorably Discharged, Dishonorably Deported celebrated Brown’s decision; calling it historic since it is the first time a governor attempts to “deal with the injustices affecting deported veterans.”

While the governor’s pardons may help in the appeals of their deportations, there is no guarantee immigration enforcement authorities will reverse their decisions.

Earlier this year, a petition was sent to the State of California, appealing the cases of Héctor Barajas, Erasmo Apodaca and Marco Antonio Chávez Medina, veterans who were deported to Mexico following the completion of their prison sentences.

“These veterans sacrificed their lives to defend our country and were promised full citizenship in exchange for their military service, they should have never been deported,” said Nathan Fletcher, a veteran and the coalition’s leader.

He added that the cases, included in a plea requesting pardons for 72 inmates and seven commutations of sentences, “give hope to the hundreds of deported veterans who are still fighting to return to the nation they honorably served.”

Hector Barajas, a former paratrooper in the U.S. Army and founder of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, Mexico, said, “there weren’t any words to describe the joy” he felt when he heard he had been pardoned by Brown. He added he also felt “sad,” because the same day he received the news a deported veteran from the U.S, arrived at the support house known as “the bunker.”

Barajas, who came to the U.S. when he was 7, served in the Army from 1995 to 2001. He says he believed he would automatically become a citizen following his service, as he was told when recruited, only later finding out he had to go through the application and testing process before being granted citizenship.

He was deported after serving a three-year sentence for shooting at a car a few months after being discharged from the Army.

Apodaca was sentenced to prison for robbery after he was found inside his ex-girlfriend’s house, while Chavez Medina was sentenced to two years for animal cruelty, but released early for good behavior.

Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrant rights at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that with the pardon, California’s governor has put an end to the suffering of the three ex-combatants.

 

Lawmakers Move Bills for Exide Cleanup

April 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

When Teresa Marquez first heard that Gov. Jerry Brown was proposing $176.6 million to expedite and expand the cleanup of homes and other properties contaminated by a now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling plant, she told herself and others, “I won’t believe it, until I see it.”

It’s been nearly two months since state lawmakers assured residents they would within two weeks introduce “urgency legislation” to appropriate the funding proposed by Brown, a commitment they made good on Wednesday with the introduction of the “Exide Clean-Up Package” in the Assembly and Senate.

Lea este artículo en Español: Legisladores Avanzan con la Limpieza de Exide

Under AB 118, authored by Majority Whip Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, and the Senate version authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, SB 93, the state would immediately appropriate a $176.6 million loan to the Department of Toxic Substances Control to be used for cleanup of east and southeast communities contaminated with lead and other toxic chemicals by the Exide plant in Vernon.

The bills are expected to land on the governor’s desk by the end of next week, and all accounts are that he will sign it.

“This is an aggressive bill and timeline,” said Santiago, who kicked off the process by talking up the merits of the bills during a special meeting of a budget subcommittee Wednesday morning.

“I stand by my original statement that we are looking for the fasted, highest quality process to speed up the cleanup efforts,” Santiago told EGP Wednesday. The assemblyman, who represents most of the communities contaminated by the Exide plant, including Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Vernon, Maywood and Huntington Park, was a regular face at DTSC hearings and meetings.

His bill, AB 118, gives DTSC access to the funds through June 2018, a date which Santiago’s chief of staff, Jackie Koenig, told EGP is included as a budget mechanism, explaining funds will still be available to DTSC after the 2018 date if needed.

The multi-million dollar loan can only be used for cleanup related activities, including testing and the CEQA environmental review process, as well as for job training of local hires and any costs related to the recovery of the funds from potentially responsible parties, including Exide.

It also mandates that DSTC keep the public informed of its progress by regularly posting on its website the number of property access agreements received, properties sampled and properties remedied. The state regulatory agency will also be required to update state legislators on the cleanup effort and provide a summary of their findings during DTSC’s annual funding requests.

A DTSC crew cleans a home at East Los Angeles. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

A DTSC crew cleans a home at East Los Angeles. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

DTSC is preparing to begin the environmental impact report (EIR) process and hopes to begin the cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks in the 1.7-mile radius surrounding the battery recycling plant by late spring 2017. The EIR is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which mandates state and local agencies identify significant environmental impacts and mitigation to the community.

Initially, there was a proposal to exempt the community cleanup from the CEQA process out of concern that it could further stall the process to remove lead, arsenic, and other potentially dangerous chemicals from area homes and other properties.

However, last week, DTSC Director Barbara Lee, speaking to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee for Resources and Transportation, said it’s the wish of community leaders and environmental groups to not exempt the Exide cleanup from CEQA process. The initial thinking was to give the cleanup the highest priority as quickly, effectively and safely as possible, she said.

The environmental review process will begin in early May with a 30-day public review of the notice of preparation, followed by a public scoping meeting later that month, according to DTSC. The agency estimates it will release a draft EIR sometime in October. Assuming no extensions are granted, the public will have 45 days to comment on the DEIR in writing or during a public hearing. DTSC estimates it could release a final EIR for public review sometime in March 2017 and certify the document in by April, if there are no delays.

The state agency is currently sampling and cleaning properties using the $7 million it received from Exide last summer. The CEQA process would not effect future testing, which would continue while the EIR is being approved, according to DTSC.

“The administration remains open to working with community leaders and the legislature to explore ways to expedite the CEQA review,” Lee told the committee last week. “The health and safety of this community – especially the youngest and most vulnerable in it – has to be our top priority.”

Congressman Xavier Becerra, who also serves the impacted areas and serves as Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, applauded Governor Brown’s recent decision not to exempt the Exide lead cleanup from the CEQA review process.

“The Governor did the right thing by respecting the will of the residents impacted by the contamination. They deserve to have the cleanup, remediation and oversight done in a way that gains their trust and confidence after years of neglect,” he said.  “While it’s important to promptly undertake all the measures necessary to restore a clean and safe environment for the families, the work must be done, first and foremost, in partnership with the families who must live through this.”

DTSC now says it will use information from the California Department of Public Health, which conducted blood tests to determine the levels of lead in children living in the areas surrounding the Vernon plan, to “refine and target our testing and cleanup.”

To date, over 1000 properties in the area surrounding Exide have been sampled and over 200 properties have been cleaned, according to DTSC.

Marquez believes that is still too little, too late.

“I don’t know why it’s taken so long, you would think by now they would be further along,” she said.

“Children are being poisoned,” she emphasized. “We want it done yesterday.”

Santiago agrees and says he is concerned that the remediation process could be prolonged.

“Every day we wait is a day our community doesn’t get justice,” he told EGP.

DTSC should have taken good notes throughout the dozens of public meetings conducted on the issue, Santiago told EGP, referring to testimony already available on the impact of Exide’s toxic polluting as well as concerns about potential risks during the cleanup process.

“We need to make sure we get this right on the front end so we don’t run into the same problems,” he said.

“I can assure all the red tape will be torn down and the neighborhoods will be cleaned up.”

Update 11:45 a.m. This post has been updated to include a statement from Congressman Xavier Becerra.

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation to Raise Minimum Wage in California

April 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In front of a boisterous downtown Los Angeles crowd of legislater, union leaders and workers who have been fighting for increased salaries, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Monday that will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

Brown, during a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan State Building, said the passage of SB 3 doesn’t mark the end of the struggle for livable wages, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

“It’s about people,” Brown said. “It’s about creating a little tiny balance in a system that every day becomes more unbalanced.”

The state Assembly and Senate both approved the legislation Thursday, despite opposition from Republicans and business leaders.

Under the legislation, California’s $10-an-hour minimum wage will increase to $10.50 in January 2017, then to $11 on Jan. 1, 2018. The minimum wage will then go up by a dollar in each of the following years until it reaches $15 in 2022, after which it will continue to rise each year by up to 3.5 percent to account for inflation.

Businesses with 25 or fewer employees get an extra year to raise their wage, so that workers will be paid $15 by 2023.

The plan also gives the governor the ability to temporarily halt the raises if there is a forecasted budget deficit of more than one percent of annual revenue, or due to poor economic conditions such as declines in jobs and retail sales.

Government workers who provide in-home health services will receive an additional three paid sick days under the plan.

“Today we’re not just witnessing the signing of a bill, we’re witnessing the honoring of our social contract—specifically that, if you get a job and work hard, you will be able to support family,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said. “For too long, that just hasn’t been the reality Many Californians who work full time can’t put a roof over their families heads or put meals on their table. This bill changes that for tens of thousands of Californians.”

The wage hike will affect 5.6 million workers, or about one-third of the statewide workforce, officials said.

The proposal is similar, although slightly slower, than an already approved increased in the city of Los Angeles minimum wage. Under the city ordinance, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50 on July 1 and eventually reach $15 per hour in 2020, with future increases pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

The same wage hike schedule was also adopted for the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

“Today California leads the nation once again, passing a historic minimum wage increase that will help lift millions of hardworking men and women out of poverty,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “Last year, I led efforts to raise the wage in Los Angeles, and we watched a wave of cities follow suit. We are fighting against income inequality with every tool we have.”

Residents Are the Heroes In Exide Victory

February 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The unrelenting efforts of residents and community activists deserve credit for California Gov. Brown and state legislators securing nearly $177 million for testing and cleanup of properties contaminated by the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, state and local Latino leaders said today during a news conference at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.

“This is what community looks like,” proclaimed Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, pointing to the group of residents and activist at his side and in the audience.

“This is a watershed moment for all, but there is still much to do.”

He was referring to the people from Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Maywood and other southeast communities who have spent decades fighting for the state to hear their pleas for justice for the men, women and children being poisoned by high levels of lead, arsenic and other contaminants from the now closed acid-lead battery recycling plant.

“These are reparations,” pointed out Gladys Limon, attorney for Communities for Better Environment. “While Governor Brown proposed this, it took a long time for him to do so.”

After years of silence, Gov. Brown publicly acknowledged the Exide contamination for the first time Wednesday when he asked state legislators to allocate $176.6 million from the general fund for testing and cleanup on the eastside.

The funds, once approved by the California State Senate and Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee, will come in the form of a loan. The state will then go after Exide and any other parties responsible for contamination to recover the costs.

“I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano, who lives in a home with high levels of lead in the soil, during the event. “This is long overdue and we can’t stop fighting until the last house is clean.”

The funds will expedite and expand testing for up to 10,000 homes and remove lead-tainted soil from 2,500 residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks in the 1.7-mile radius surrounding plant. The multi-million spending plan would increase the number of crews assigned to the week-long cleanups from 2 to 40, according to Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Many residents have told EGP over the years they are frustrated with inept oversight by the DTSC, and today, many still say they do not trust the agency to handle the funds or the cleanup moving forward.

DTSC allowed Exide to operate for decades on a temporary permit, even after repeatedly being found to have exposed more than 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals and collecting dozens of hazardous waste violations.

“Let me clear, there is no safe level of lead,” de Leon said today.

Local elected officials came together at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights Friday to praise Eastside residents and environmental activist for pushing the state to  address Exide contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Local elected officials came together at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights Friday to praise Eastside residents and environmental activist for pushing the state to address Exide contamination. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, one of the most severely impacted communities, said he’s anxious to see a timeline for the testing and cleanup process, now that funds will finally be available. He wants strict oversight of state regulators, who have moved slowly to protect the community.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia noted that the funds are “just a down payment, not just in funding but the work from elected officials.” Estimates put the entire cleanup at $400 million, possibly making it the costliest environmental catastrophe in California history.

De Leon told EGP that he has serious concerns about the toxics substances control agency’s ability to handle the cleanup, and said that question would be part of his negotiations with governor’s office moving forward.

As EGP first reported, residents and community activists had grown increasingly frustrated and angry over the “double standard” they observed in the treatment of the mostly-white, affluent Porter Ranch gas leak and the blue collar, and the predominately Latino communities affected by Exide’s lead contamination.

They were angry that there had been no public statement from Brown, and the slow pace of the decontamination process.

It was just a few weeks ago that L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she had tried to reach the governor to ask him to allocate $70 million for the cleanup, but he was unresponsive.

“I called the governor and thanked him for the funds,” she said today about his turnaround.

“I also invited him to come and see what’s going on,” she said in Spanish. “He said ‘we’ll see,’” she said.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said pressure from the community made the difference.

“The community kept elected officials on task,” said Lara.

“I want to personally thank EGP and the Eastside Sun for their incredible investigative journalism for bringing bright sunshine to residents of Boyle Heights and to this incredible environmental crisis,” said de Leon.

Rev. Monsignor John Moretta earlier in the week told EGP that when the community gathered to celebrate the closure of the Exide plant last year, they thought it was a victory. They have since realized that the real work was still ahead.

The same can be said about the state’s funding now, he said. Moretta and several other people said they want an investigation into state regulators and for Los Angeles’ city attorney and the state attorney to bring legal action against Exide, which has abandoned toxic waste sites in five other parts of the country.

This is not the end, he said.

In the end, the event was intended to be a recognition of the community’s activism.

U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra said holding the celebration at Resurrection Church was fitting.

“Folks had to rise from the ashes again,” he said. “Residents had to each add their grain of sand for years, now the governor has added his.”

Exide: State to Fund $176M to Speed Up Testing, Cleanup

February 18, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

For years, communities surrounding the now-shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon have fought to be heard: first to force the closure of the facility and then to ensure a thorough, swift cleanup of neighborhoods contaminated by toxic emissions — something many believe was stalled due to a lack of funding and sense of urgency on the part of state officials.

On Wednesday, Gov. Brown at long last took a major step to address Exide’s contamination by proposing the state spend $176.6 million to expedite and expand testing and cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks in the 1.7-mile radius surrounding the battery recycling plant.

The multi-million dollar spending plan is detailed in a letter to the California State Senate and Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee chairs. The funds will be in the form of a loan from the General Fund, and California will “vigorously pursue Exide and other potential responsible parties to recover the costs of this cleanup,” according the governor’s office.

The now-closed Exide Technologies plant is located at 2700 South Indiana St. in Vernon. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

The now-closed Exide Technologies plant is located at 2700 South Indiana St. in Vernon. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

“This Exide battery recycling facility has been a problem for a very long time,” said Brown in his first public statement on Exide. “With this funding plan, we’re opening a new chapter that will help protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”

Barbara Lee, director of the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control told reporters Wednesday the new funding will allow DTSC to hire more staff to test the remaining properties in the contamination zone and to remove lead-tainted soil from 2,500 properties labeled highest priority.

So far, close to 200 homes in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Maywood and Huntington Park have been cleaned since the plant was forced to close in April 2015, according to DTSC. Currently, DTSC only has two crews assigned to the large-scale decontamination, but Lee said that number could go up to as many as 40 crews cleaning at least one property each per week.

Senate leader Kevin de Leon applauded the governor for recognizing the “urgent need” for emergency action. Ongoing talks with the governor’s office led to this day, the senator said. “Urgency legislation” to appropriate the funding will be introduced within the next week or so, de Leon told reporters.

While the governor’s proposal is widely welcomed, it’s also bittersweet.

Especially for residents and environmental activists who for years heavily criticized Brown and state agencies overseeing the cleanup for their slow response to the Exide “epidemic,” which may have contaminated 10,000 homes and exposed as many as 2 million people in East and Southeast Los Angeles communities to toxic levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals.

Brown’s long silence on Exide irked eastside residents who saw his rapid response to the SoCal Gas Co. gas leak in more affluent Porter Ranch and emergency declaration to marshal state resources to deal with the catastrophe as confirmation that there’s a double standard when it comes to the treatment of poor people and communities of color.

“Our communities have been fighting Exide for decades, and with today’s announcement from Governor Brown, it is clear he has heard our calls for swift and comprehensive cleanup,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice.

Lopez, however, pointed out that the funding is not enough to complete the entire cleanup, but called it the “next step in the long road to justice on this issue” after the state failing for years protect the community from Exide. It sends a clear message that the cleanup will now be a priority for the state, Lopez said.

Brown’s proposal comes just two days after a group of Boyle Heights residents told EGP they had grown tired of attending meetings and hearings, and felt it was time to get the weight of the federal government behind them after seeing no real action for years from their elected officials.

“We need the federal government to take DTSC out of the equation and handle it themselves,” Terry Cano said Monday.

“I think they believe if they close their eyes and ignore it, we’ll just die out,” said Joe Gonzalez, who says he has cancer and just two months to live.

They blame state regulatory agencies for allowing Exide to operate for 33 years on a temporary permit, all the while spewing toxic levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological diseases and learning disabilities in the mostly working-class communities.

Last Friday, saying he too had grown impatient with DTSC, Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar intruded a resolution signed by five of his colleagues urging the state to move quickly to allocate funding. Huizar, who represents and is himself a resident of Boyle Heights, also asked that City Atty. Mike Feuer explore what if any legal options the city has.

Huizar said Wednesday the much-needed funds “do right by communities that for so long suffered undue harm because of Exide’s negligence and a complicit state agency that failed to regulate the battery recycling company,” He’s looking forward to seeing a timeline that spells out when testing and remediation will start and how long it will take.

Lee responded to criticism of the governor Tuesday night at a meeting of the Independent Exide Community Advisory Committee.

“He’s spent hours talking about Exide, working on what he wants to propose,” she said before alluding to an impending announcement.

Yesterday she told reporters Brown’s proposal is a “big milestone” for the state and an indication of how committed the governor is to the cleanup.

DTSC workers clean a Boyle Heights home. (DTSC)

DTSC workers clean a Boyle Heights home. (DTSC)

De Leon said Wednesday that the state would work closely with the U.S. Attorney to ensure Exide lives up to its agreement to pay for the cleanup, or face federal criminal charges.

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard implored state legislatures to immediately approve funding to expedite the cleanup.

“The health and well-being of our communities depends on swift and sustained action by the state,” she said. “To date, the state’s effort has been dangerously slow and underfunded.”

The city of Commerce released a statement calling the contamination an “environmental disaster,” adding the testing and cleanup has been a “long and arduous process.” On Tuesday, the council asked staff to discuss with the state expanding its targeted areas in Commerce.

“This long-fought victory is a result of Assembly, Senate and local officials working together to raise the fierce urgency of this issue to the Governor,” said Assembly Speaker-Elect Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said in response the Brown’s proposal.

Rendon also singled out Assemblymembers “Miguel Santiago and Cristina Garcia for their relentless devotion to restoring justice to East and Southeast L.A. residents victimized by the illegal behavior of Exide management.”

Garcia said Wednesday she plans to work with her colleagues to create a necessary CEQA exemption to expedite the testing and cleanup of these homes.

Garcia and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago also plan to introduce legislation to mandate a fee on car batteries sold in California.

“This measure would create a state mandated Lead-Acid (Car) Battery Recycling program, and have $1 from that fund go to re-pay the $176.6 million loan program,” she announced.

In addition to testing and cleanup, Lee said some of the $176 million would go toward workforce development and job skills training for local residents and businesses to help revitalize the community. Lee also announced the state is looking at ways to improve how they manage waste and reduce the exposure of lead, adding staff is currently identifying how manufacturers can make batteries safer for humans and the environment.

Brown’s announcement came after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, calling for them to allocate more funding for the cleanup effort, saying the $8.5 million originally proposed by the governor was inadequate.

“For too long we have seen two Americas: one in which affluent neighborhoods get immediate help and relief. The other America is made up of poor working-class families who silently suffer,” Solis said. “Today’s announcement from the Governor reconciles these two Americas.”

Last week for the first time since taking office, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti met with Boyle Heights residents disappointed by the city’s lack of action on their behalf.

Garcetti told EGP he has directed the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation to work with community leaders, County Public Health and DTSC to help advance testing and cleanup and plans to launch a public education effort to ensure that more residents are tested for lead contamination.

“No one should have to live in fear of serious health risks from their own home and no child should be robbed of the joy of playing in their own backyard,” Garcetti told EGP. “Those who live in Boyle Heights and the surrounding communities deserve better.”

DTSC’s Assistant Director for Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs Ana Mascareñas said the agency is considering holding large-scale events such as health fairs and opening resource centers to allow residents to drop in and get information about the cleanup process.

Exide agreed in March 2015 to close its lead-acid battery recycling plant and pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.

Of that amount, $26 million is to be combined with $11 million currently in trust to safely close the plant, according to DTSC. As of August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million is due to be paid in by March 2020, according to state officials.

Longtime Boyle Heights resident Frank Villalobos told EGP he was elated by the announcement but pointed out the funds will only address the impact to property and not the permanent damage residents face with illnesses caused by the contamination.

For now, “our prayers have been answered,” he said. “The state is now starting to show concern.”

Brown Announces $176.6M for Exide Cleanup

February 17, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In a letter to State Legislators, Gov. Jerry Brown today proposed spending $176.6 million to expedite and expand the testing and cleanup of homes, schools and parks near the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

The letter, sent to the chairs of the Senate and Assembly budget and appropriations committees, says funds will be in the form of a loan from the General Fund, and that California will “vigorously pursue Exide and other potential responsible parties to recover the costs of this cleanup.”

The now-closed Exide Technologies plant is located at 2700 South Indiana St. in Vernon. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

The now-closed Exide Technologies plant is located at 2700 South Indiana St. in Vernon. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

“This Exide battery recycling facility has been a problem for a very long time,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re opening a new chapter that will help protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”

The $176.6 million will ensure the Department of Toxic Substances Control is able to test properties, homes, schools, daycare centers and parks within the targeted 1.7-mile radius of the now shuttered battery-recycling plant in Vernon, and remove soil from properties with the highest levels of lead-contaminated soiled, according to the governor’s letter.

The announcement comes following months of growing frustration and heavy criticism by residents, environmental activists and state and local elected officials over the governor’s long silence on Exide, particularly in the wake of his rapid response to the SoCal Gas Co. gas leak in more affluent Porter Ranch, and emergency declaration allowing the state to shepherd state funding and resources to deal with the catastrophe. For years, despite repeated violations of polluting air emissions and handling of hazardous waste, the state had allowed Exide to operate on a temporary permit, allowing the company to continue to decades spew toxic levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological diseases in the mostly working-class communities of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Commerce, Bell, Huntington Park, and East Los Angeles.

Senate Leader Kevin de Leon today applauded the governor for recognizing the “urgent need” for emergency action. Ongoing talks with the governor’s office led to this day, the senator said. “Urgency legislation” to appropriate the funding will be introduced within the next week or so, De Leon told reporters.

“Our communities have been fighting Exide for decades, and with today’s announcement from Governor Brown, it is clear he has heard our calls for swift and comprehensive cleanup,” said Mark Lopez with East Yards for Environmental Justice.

Lopez said the funding is not enough to complete the entire cleanup, but is the “next step in the long road to justice on this issue.”

He said the governor’s announcement is a clear message the cleanup will now be a priority for the state, after years of failing to protect the community from Exide.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, responded to criticism of the governor Tuesday night at a meeting of the Independent Exide Community Advisory Committee.

“He spent hours talking about Exide, working on what he wants to propose,” she said, before alluding to an impending announcement.

Today she told reporters the proposal was a “big milestone” for the state and an indication of how committed the governor is to the cleanup.

Brown’s announcement came one day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter to Brown and legislative leaders, calling for them to allocate more funding for the cleanup effort, saying the $8.5 million originally proposed by the governor was inadequate.

“The state’s numbers indicate that the cleanup could cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who said publicly in the past the governor had not responded to her efforts to get him to allocate more state resources to the cleanup.

In October, the board approved $2 million in funding to help speed the cleanup of contaminated soil around the now-closed Exide plant, with Solis saying the state was dragging its feet

Exide agreed in March to close its lead-acid battery recycling plant and pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.

Of that amount, $26 million will be combined with $11 million currently in trust to safely close the plant, according to DTSC. As of August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid in by March 2020, according to state officials.

As many as 1,000 homes may be found to have toxicity concentrated enough to qualify as hazardous waste, and the state has estimated that 5,000-10,000 homes may ultimately require some cleanup.

The plant, which produced a host of hazardous wastes, including lead, arsenic and benzene, operated for 33 years without a permanent permit. Efforts to upgrade the equipment and safety procedures repeatedly failed to meet environmental standards.

Though gaseous plant emissions are no longer an issue, lead contamination in the soil, which can cause developmental delays and cognitive impairments, remains a concern.

A public health spokesman has also cited the increased risk of cancer linked to other chemicals once emitted by the plant.

Boyle Heights and Maywood have the highest levels of residential contamination, but the area of exposure stretches to encompass roughly 2 million people, according to Angelo Bellomo, director of the county’s Environmental Health Division.

Information from City News Service used in this article.

[Update 4:40p.m.: correction to funding amount to safely close plant.]

Exide, Porter Ranch: A Double Standard

January 14, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

The complaints of headaches, bloody noses and asthma by Porter Ranch residents sound all to familiar to eastside activists who’ve spent years fighting their own large scale local environmental health hazard.

So are the demands for government officials to immediately shut down Southern California Gas Co.’s natural gas storage facilities near Porter Ranch that residents blame for their health crisis.

Lea este artículo en Español: Exide, Porter Ranch; Un Doble Estándar

Strikingly different, however, has been the response from state regulators and elected officials – including Gov. Jerry Brown –who for years failed to take the same level of bold action to stop Vernon-based Exide Technologies from putting the lives of thousands of east and southeast working class, predominately Latino residents at risk.

Money, race and political power are at the root of the inequity, activists claim.

Armed with high-powered attorneys, residents in Porter Ranch are demanding the closure of SoCal Gas’ Aliso Canyon facility where a leak was discovered Oct. 23, leading to hundreds of complaints from residents about negative health effects and demands for the utility company to pay to relocate residents in the impacted area. In less than three months more than 2,000 residents have been relocated, schools have been shut down, students were moved and the company is expected to pay for the housing of pets and additional policing.

Residents from Boyle Heights to Commerce angrily protest Governor Brown’s silence on the Exide Technology pollution scandal during a red ribbon cutting ceremony he attended in November not far from the Vernon battery recycling plant. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

Residents from Boyle Heights to Commerce angrily protest Governor Brown’s silence on the Exide Technology pollution scandal during a red ribbon cutting ceremony he attended in November not far from the Vernon battery recycling plant. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

No one denies the seriousness of the problem in Porter Ranch, but east and southeast area residents and activists can’t help feeling there’s a double standard at play, especially when it comes to Gov. Brown who last week declared a State of Emergency in Porter Ranch after touring the Aliso Canyon facility and meeting with affected residents, something he’s failed to do in the Exide case.

His declaration allows the state to mobilize the necessary state personnel, equipment and facilities, and to waive any laws or regulations in place to deal with the environmental issue. It also gives the governor power to allocate emergency funding to fix the leak, which is expected to take three to four months to repair.

Boyle Heights resident Doelorez Mejia was pleased to see the quick call to action by the governor and state officials in Porter Ranch, but couldn’t help feeling the injustice of the situation.

“I’m disappointed our community was not considered as worthy for such swift protection,” she told EGP. “But sadly, I’m not surprised.”

She was referring to the years that pleas from residents living near the Exide acid-lead battery recycling plant were ignored. And the dozens of meetings where residents testified about the people – young and old – in their families with cancer, children with learning disabilities and other illnesses they say can be blamed on years of breathing in the toxic chemicals spewing from the Exide plant.

In 2013, air quality officials reported that Exide had violated toxic chemical emissions putting more than 110,000 east and southeast area residents at a higher-risk of cancer. Lead and arsenic had been found in the soil at nearby homes and at least one park.

It wasn’t the first time Exide had violated state standards on toxic emissions, nor would it be the last.
But unlike in Porter Ranch, demands around Exide went unheeded. Residents were not relocated, classes were not cancelled and the facility could not be closed despite operating for decades on a temporary permit issued by the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC).

Public outcry during dozens of community meetings, hearings and protest marches over their exposure to toxic levels of arsenic and lead – known to cause permanent neurological damage to children and pregnant woman – failed to force the closure of the facility. In fact, it took the U.S. Attorney’s Office stepping in and strong-arming Exide – with the threat of federal criminal charges – to agree to a negotiated permanent shut down in April 2015.

Testing and air emission modeling in the area now show that as many as two million people may be at an elevated risk for cancer and other health issues due to years of exposure to lead from the Exide plant. State toxic regulators now believe that upwards of 10,000 properties may need to be tested and decontaminated. So far, only 184 contaminated properties have been cleaned.

Exide was allowed to open adjacent to homes that had been in the area for generations. In Porter Ranch, city planners had allowed developers to build on vacant land next the Aliso Canyon facility, which had been there for decades.

Residentes afectados por Exide protestaron durante una ceremonia en noviembre donde asistió el gobernador Jerry Brown, quien no se ha pronunciado al respecto. (EGP foto por Fred Zermeno)

An appearance by Gov. Jerry Brown at the opening of a new hotel in Bell Gardens two months ago drew loud protests from activists angry that he has yet to speak out on the Exide Technologies pollution scandal. (Photo courtesy of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice)

Boyle Heights resident Teresa Marquez acknowledges that both the Porter Ranch and Exide environmental hazards pose a threat to public health, but says she knew the response would be drastically different in Porter Ranch,  since even at the local level public officials have been more active in the Valley.

Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, Marquez pointed out, yet Mayor Eric Garcetti has not made an appearance at an Exide meeting or made public statements calling for a prompt response the way he has about the gas leak, she said disappointingly. Where’s the city attorney, who is now filing lawsuits to protect Porter Ranch residents?

“The key difference is money and white,” she said frankly. “And we’re just poor Latinos.”

Porter Ranch is a more affluent Los Angeles neighborhood located at the northwest edge of the San Fernando Valley. Its residents are mostly white, with a medium household income of over $120,000. In contrast, Exide’s contamination impacts the highly dense communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, unincorporated East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon; all home to mostly working class Latinos.

“I can’t help but wonder why the horrible disaster at Porter Ranch has captured so much attention, while the equally horrible disaster at Exide has captured so little,” Los Angeles County Board Supervisor Chair Hilda L. Solis told EGP in an emailed statement.

It was not until the facility was forced to close that eastside residents began to see elected officials take notice of their concerns, said Marquez. But even as they celebrated that victory many residents knew the challenge ahead was cleaning up the lead from dirt that to this day prevent children from playing in their own backyards.

“They wouldn’t dare relocate [Porter Ranch] families into our communities,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

He told EGP their anger is not at Porter Ranch or its residents, but at the state and governor “who can be responsive but chose not to respond.”

“The gas leak should have been shut down last month, that being said, Exide should have been shut down decades ago.”

Late last year Brown attended a hotel opening in Bell Gardens, not far from Exide. Lopez and other eastside residents were also there, outside angrily protesting the governor’s silence on Exide. They carried signs and a 10-foot paper-mache effigy of Brown. Unlike in Porter Ranch, the governor has yet to visit communities impacted by Exide or publicly comment on the long-playing Exide environmental crisis, despite it now being called one of the largest public health disasters in the state’s history.

Gladys Limon, staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment told EGP the governor’s and state agencies’ responses to the Porter Ranch catastrophe reveal a stark racial disparity in efforts to protect communities from health and safety risks caused by industrial operations.

“The state neglected the thousands of families in Southeast and East L.A. for decades, and the Governor to this day has failed to personally acknowledge the Exide health emergency and to meet with residents,” she said.

Former County Supervisor Gloria Molina told EGP that she continuously called the governor’s office to get him to take action, but never got a call back.

“The governor is totally uninterested,” she said, adding it may have something to do with the low number of registered voters in the area.

“He takes pride in being the environmental governor but he seems more interested in protecting trees than people,” Molina said.

Some environmental activists say they believe the governor’s response to the Aliso Canyon gas leak may be more in line with his commitment to be the world’s leader in reducing greenhouse emissions, than about health concerns.

Marquez said she was surprised to hear Brown had met with Porter Ranch residents.

“He hasn’t spoken to us,” she said. “I don’t know why he hasn’t taken similar action … he just simply doesn’t care about our community.”

EGP reached out to the governor to get his response to concerns by eastside residents that he has been indifferent to their plight, but, in keeping with the criticism from the community and elected officials, Brown again failed to personally comment on the situation. Instead he passed off our request to the Department of Toxic Substance Control, the state regulatory agency in charge of the cleanup, which has for years been strongly criticized for its handling of Exide.

“Protecting the community around the Exide Technologies facility in Vernon is a high priority for the Administration,” reads the response from DTSC spokesman Sandy Nax, who credited the governor for providing additional funding for the residential sampling and cleanups currently underway.

Bell Councilman Nestor Valencia told EGP he and other area residents have criticized DTSC for moving too slowly with soil sample tests and the clean up of properties.

“It goes to show the disparity of the southeast and East Los Angeles communities [compared] to other communities,” he said.

Residents just want the same response they saw in the Valley, Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias told EGP. They want the same protocols for all communities, she said.

“Nobody should have to live under circumstances like that – where their health is impacted,” said Macias. “No offense to Porter Ranch but it’s unfortunate for us to not see such a response when we are talking about a toxic substance.”
Instead of hope, Mejia says the response by elected officials to the Porter Ranch disaster reaffirms what she already knew.

“They don’t care so much about our inner-city people. They don’t care about the industrial neighborhoods or the workers the way they do about wealthier communities.”

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

 

A version of this article was published by Eastern Group Publications in the January 14, 2016 print editions.

[Update 1:30p.m:] Added additional comments by residents.

State & Feds Must Address Transportation Funding Crisis

July 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The Federal Highway Trust Fund will expire on July 31 and California’s highways are falling apart. The businesses and residents of California are angry and frustrated by the lack of focus on transportation at both the State and Federal level. Tax revenue is growing in Washington DC and Sacramento but none of that new revenue is going to transportation.

Transportation funding at both the State and Federal level is largely dependent on a per gallon gasoline tax that has been stagnant for years because the tax per gallon has not been increased at the State or Federal level for decades and the development of more fuel efficient cars has lowered the per mile revenue from every vehicle on the road. This has been welcome news for drivers and a major blow to the funding needed to maintain the quality of our transportation infrastructure.

Governor Brown has called a special session on transportation funding and the first hearing was held on June 2. It makes sense for the state to use some of its new general fund revenue for transportation improvements and to add to that funding pool an increase in other revenue sources that are directly related to the drivers that use our streets and highways.

In Congress, the Senate has made some progress on a bi-partisan bill to authorize a new Surface Transportation bill, but revenue to grow the Highway Trust Fund was not part of the proposal. The House has been less aggressive and seems content to vote for another five month extension.

Funding for transportation infrastructure is not an easy problem to solve, but it must be addressed if America is to efficiently move its people and products. Both our quality of life and our economy are at risk. Yes, it will cost money. Money that I believe businesses and residents are willing to pay if they see results in the quality and efficiency of their transportation networks.

Building a transportation network that meets the needs of a growing economy and the challenges of an aging infrastructure requires money and each of us must be prepared to pay for a portion of that cost. We also have the right to demand that more of the tax dollars we are already paying should be earmarked for transportation. I hope you will join me in sending that message to Congress and to our State Legislature. Traffic and potholes are not getting better as we wait.

And that’s The Business Perspective.

 

The Business Perspective is a weekly column by Gary Toebben, President & CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, produced with the input of Public Policy staff.

 

Gov. Brown Signs Law Mandating Vaccinations

July 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Almost all school children in the Southland and across California will be required to be vaccinated against diseases such as measles and whooping cough under legislation signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

SB 277 was co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. Pan is also a pediatrician. The legislation was prompted in part by an outbreak of measles traced to Disneyland that began in late December and ultimately spread to more than 130 people across the state.

Cases were also reported in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and Washington state.

The legislation eliminates vaccination exemptions based on religious or personal beliefs. It will require all children entering kindergarten to be vaccinated unless a doctor certifies that a child has a medical condition, such as allergies, preventing it.

“I want to thank all of the parents, families and my colleagues and Governor Brown for their advocacy and thoughtful deliberation of this legislation,” said Allen, former president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board. “Today is a good day for California.”

Brown, in a bill-signing message sent to the state Senate, acknowledged there was opposition to the bill, but said children’s health is important to protect.

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infection and dangerous diseases,” Brown wrote in his message. “While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

Brown noted that the legislation exempts children from immunizations if there are “circumstances, including but not limited to, family medical history for which the physician does not recommend immunization.”

Los Angeles Unified School District officials said last week they supported the bill’s intent of “boosting vaccination rates through the state,” adding that the requirement “will ensure a safer and healthier environment for our schools.”

Opponents criticized the bill as infringing on the rights of parents to make medical decisions for their children. Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, said it “denies parents the right to exempt genetically susceptible brothers and sisters of vaccine-injured children, denies parents a religious exemption and denies conscientious objectors a public-school education.”

Interim Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser countered that the recent measles outbreak “highlights the importance” of ensuring as many people as possible get vaccinated.

“Measles remains a serious health threat that is present in many parts of the world,” he said.

“Attaining the highest vaccination rates possible in Los Angeles County will assure that our children and all residents are safe in the event that additional cases are imported in the future.”

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl hailed the bill, saying it will protect “our children and our communities from a host of entirely preventable communicable diseases.”

Leah Russin, co-founder of Vaccinate California, an advocacy group that pushed for the legislation, said parents can now “breathe a sigh of relief knowing our children and others will be better protected from preventative diseases.”

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said vaccination rates have dropped in schools in recent years, raising the risk of disease outbreaks.

“The bill protects the health of our children and our communities, especially those too young or too ill to receive vaccines,” Torlakson said.

“The bill protects against the outbreaks of debilitating, crippling and costly preventable diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox. It will help keep students healthy so they can attend school, learn and succeed.”

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