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.
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.”
Janitors, housekeepers, airline and restaurant workers were among participants supporting legislation to end wage theft at a town hall meeting Friday in Highland Park at Franklin High School.
Senate leader Kevin de Leon spoke about his legislation, SB 588, the Fair Day’s Pay Act, which he said would strengthen the State Labor Commissioner’s ability to collect wages owed to employees.
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Hard working employees shouldn’t have to go hungry or live in crowded places because they don’t earn enough, said De Leon, who represents Highland Park, Vernon and Boyle Heights.
“It is criminal that [business owners] have stolen those wages from you,” he told the gathering. “Why? Because you have to pay your bills, your children’s education. You need your money to survive!”
In California, one in three workers is paid less than the minimum wage and every week in Los Angeles about $26.5 million in wage theft violations occur, according to the California Fair Paycheck Coalition.
Long lines, language barriers and the potential loss of paid work days prevent many employees from filing claims to regain lost wages, according to De Leon. The government’s existing system for collecting unpaid wages is also complex and ineffective, making it harder for workers and easier for bad employers to get away with not paying their employees what’s owed.
Those who do file a claim and win, according to the coalition, are rarely compensated.
“Five out of six workers who win their theft cases never see a dime” due to the complexity of the process, says the coalition.
“This is a situation happening every day in California and employers have been getting away with it,” SEIU President David Huerta told EGP.
Examples of wage theft include employers who pay less than minimum wage or who pay workers for fewer hours than worked, as well as employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors or who do not pay over-time as required by law.
“This issue gets worse with undocumented workers because they become silent victims,” Huerta said.
A 2010 University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center study found that local low-wage workers are robbed of about $1 billion in wages each year.
The harm caused by wage theft is not just financial, but also poses a health and wellbeing risk to workers in low-wage jobs and their families with poor living conditions, said Fabiola Santiago, a researcher with the Human Impact Partners.
“When workers experience wage theft they don’t have money to put healthy food on their table,” that leads to anxiety, stress and depression, she said. “Income is the strongest determination of health,” she added.
It’s time to put legal protections in place so workers’ wages are not stolen and “they can live a better life, for themselves and for their children,” De Leon told EGP.
“Life is hard enough, but having your wages stolen by big corporations is criminal,” the senator said.
SB 588 targets businesses that owe money to employees. Supporters say it will reduce abuse of corporate laws by not allowing businesses to hide behind sub-contractors or by changing their name. If passed, SB 588 would give the labor commissioner the power to collect wages owed to workers.
De Leon’s goal is to get the bill passes in the Assembly and on the governor’s desk by September.
Following the meeting, workers marched to the El Super store on York Boulevard in Highland Park, which was recently fined by the State Labor Commission violations of worker safety and wage laws.
Hundreds of people took part Saturday in the 8th Annual Peace in the Northeast march in response to the increase of shootings, assaults and domestic violence cases in the neighborhood.
Councilmember Gil Cedillo (CD-1) along with elected officials and LAPD officers kicked off the event at Franklin High School and walked to Sycamore Park where a resource fair took place.
“California is the seventh largest economy in the entire world,” senate leader Kevin De Leon told a gathering of Latino business owners last week.
He was taking part in the Los Angeles Latino Business Chamber of Commerce’s Distinguished Speakers Series, and used the opportunity to discuss his “Five E’s,” policies he said are the framework for his work in the senate.
With a gross state product (GSP) of over $2.2 trillion, California – the country’s largest economy – withstood the worst recession since the 1920s, and just surpassed Brazil’s GSP, De Leon said.
“It just shows the resiliency of the economy,” he said optimistically.
The senator said the state’s future success is tied to his “Five E’s” — Economy, Education, Environment, Equity and Exceptionalism.
“It’s absolutely critical that we pass policies that will move our economic conditions forward,” he said. “It’s critical for job creation.”
He pointed out that unemployment has gone down throughout the state including in the city of Los Angeles, which just fell to 7.4 percent, down from 11 percent a few years back.
It should be noted that the local unemployment rate is still higher than the state’s overall jobless rate of 6.8%, the U.S. rate of 5.8%, or 5.5% in Montgomery Alabama and 5.4% in El Paso, Texas.
The senator’s agenda includes a focus on the environment, including SB 350, which calls for increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 50 percent by 2030.
The bill also calls for the reduction of petroleum dependence in the state.
“An economy based on fossil fuels is an economy based on shifting sands,” he warned.
Working class families bare the burden of a dependence on oil, he said.
It’s a plan that many business owners have complained will ultimately hurt business and lead to job losses.
De Leon, however, says the change in policies are intended to simultaneously improve the economy and job market by creating and providing more “green jobs.”
Latinos, he hopes, will be among those who benefit.
“I want electric cars to speak Spanish,” he said, explaining that the vehicles are rarely advertised to Latinos, especially Spanish speakers.
“What you see is F-150s, big trucks, [but] you never see a commercial advertising the Nissan Leaf.”
A chamber member asked the senator to explain how Latinos can break that barrier and get “planted” in the green space.
De Leon responded that electing more Latinos and putting Latinos to work are an “economic imperative for the state,” but he never really answered the question about what state legislators can do to ensure Latino owned businesses have access to opportunities in this new economy.
He instead continued to focus his talk on the needs of consumers, noting that polls have shown Latinos are very concerned about the environment.
“California is the leader, we lead and Washington follows,” De Leon said. “And for the first time you have a Latino leader in charge of climate change,” he said, a reference to his agenda.
The senator went on to discuss other areas of his Five Es platform, but never quite made the connection to how businesses like those in the Latino Chamber can benefit or get involved.
De Leon outlined Senate Bill 15, which includes the establishment of a graduation incentive grant for Cal State students who complete 30 semester units per year. He said encouraging college students to graduate and enter the workforce faster will free up revenue to relieve the bottleneck at UCs and Cal States so more students can attend college. Most “non-traditional” students, the majority from working class families, currently take 6 years to graduate, he said. “It’s important we invest in these students,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of affordable childcare, especially for single working mothers.
“If women can’t work, our economy suffers,” he said.
De Leon also discussed the10-bill immigrant focused legislative package recently unveiled by State Legislators, classifying it under the umbrella of “Exceptionalism.”
“I’d rather resign than curtail my thoughts on immigration,” he said. “It’s who I am, it’s in my DNA.”
De Leon was elected president pro tem of the state senate last November. He is the second Latino to hold the office and the first in over 134 years.