For years, election of city office holders has come down to ballots cast by as few as two-dozen registered voters in Vernon, but with the recent doubling of the city’s residential population that could change.
The city hopes to increase Vernon’s current pool of 63 registered voters by reaching out to people living in the recently opened Vernon Village Park development, and will hold an informational meeting there Nov. 18 to explain how elections work in the city.
While Vernon has yet to see any new voter registrations since the housing project opened, “we are hoping that will soon change,” City Clerk Maria E. Ayala told EGP.
Ayala said her office is hosting the meeting and that staff will explain Vernon’s voting process. They will also be armed with voter registration and change of address forms to make the process more convenient for residents.
Vernon elections are conducted by mail-in-ballot – meaning there are no polling places or voting booths. While vote-by-mail ballots are not new, the “practice may be completely different to what new residents are used to,” Ayala said.
The city clerk said her office has also compiled and distributed Vernon’s first resident information pamphlet containing contact information for city departments and important meeting dates to encourage residents to get involved in the city.
The Nov. 18 meeting is open to all city residents – even if they are already registered to vote in L.A. County – and Spanish translation will be available. The meeting will be held at the Vernon Village Community Room located at 4675 E. 52nd Drive.
The city’s next election is scheduled for April 12, when Mayor W. Michael McCormick’s term expires.
State workers armed with a new testing tool are canvassing southeast area streets in search of properties contaminated with lead.
The XRF (X-ray fluorescent) devices quickly analyze the metals in soil samples on site, eliminating the need for lab testing and accelerating the testing of residential properties in the process, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency overseeing the clean up of toxic contamination from the now closed Exide acid-lead battery recycling plant in Vernon.
State regulators were given the go-ahead to proceed with testing during a rather testy meeting of the Exide Community Advisory Committee Oct. 28 at Commerce City Hall. Before the meeting, DTSC Director Barbara Lee told EGP the agency was ready to start testing on properties with the highest potential for lead contamination within an expanded 1.7-mile radius of the Vernon facility.
A new online application is now available for residents to request sampling at their property in the expanded north and south areas.
“The department views this cleanup as one of our highest priorities,” Lee said. “We are moving very quickly on parallel tracks to get the Exide site and the residential areas around it cleaned.”
Up to 10,000 homes may need to be tested and decontaminated. As many as two million people may be at elevated risk from their exposure to toxic levels of lead, known to cause neurological damages to children and pregnant woman. The cleanup price tag could go over $400 million.
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities, is on the community advisory committee. He told EGP he was not surprised that DTSC has opted to do more testing before moving to clean up.
“At this point, everything with DTSC is a formula,” he said. “They take a long time to do nothing. It’s not until someone else moves forward that they come and say ‘we were going to do that.’”
He was referring to a decision by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to commit $2 million to help speed up testing. Concerns are growing that the financial settlements reached with Exide by state and federal regulators will not adequately cover the cost of the massive clean up.
DTSC has $8 million in a fund earmarked for closure and post closure costs; an $11 million surety bond and $1 million left from the $9 million fund for residential cleanup, according to DTSC officials.
Sup. Hilda Solis has called on Gov. Brown and the federal government to put up the money needed.
In Commerce, Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca has asked staff to identify city funds that could be used for soil sampling within city borders.
Lopez told EGP there’s more action going on at the local level, such as East Yard Communities volunteers going door-to-door to urge residents to get their homes tested. Volunteers report that most of the people they have spoken to say they’ve never been approached by DTSC, Lopez said.
There have been many complaints that DTSC is taking too long to clean the 170 homes already identified as having high levels of lead. Sup. Hilda Solis has been particularly critical, and last week announced that the County will conduct its own public outreach campaign in predominately immigrant neighborhoods. She said the County would send out promotoras to educate residents about blood lead testing and the importance of requesting cleanup inside their homes
Lee, however, defends testing as a vital part of the decontamination plan. She acknowledges it can be tedious, but says the agency needs the data obtained to hold Exide accountable for the cleanup.
Lopez suggested the agency should hire or train local volunteers that are more than willing to help with the cleanup.
“The folks out here just want this cleanup done,” he said.
According to DTSC, the cleanup process could be aided by local government agencies applying for money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to remediate lead-paint exposure, and they urged residents to report lead-pain inside their homes.
“That is why our partnership with Los Angeles County and cities in the areas is so important,” said Lee. “These agencies have the authority and expertise to address the paint, while we clean soils contaminated by Exide.”
Testing for chemical contamination in Commerce and other areas could start as early as today, a state regulator said Wednesday.
Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control said the agency is set to begin testing on properties with highest potential for lead contamination within an expanded 1.7 mile radius of the now shuttered Exide Technologies lead-acid battery recycling plant in Vernon, pending approval of its cleanup plan by a community advisory committee last night.
It has been reported that the testing and cleanup of the 10,000 or so homes in the expanded area could cost more than $400 million.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a $2 million funding request by Supervisor Hilda Solis to help speed the cleanup of contaminated soil around the Exide plant, saying “the state continues to drag its feet.”
Exide agreed in March to close its plant and to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.
Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup. 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.
Lee said the agency welcomes any additional resources.
“It’s a big effort and there’s room for everyone to contribute,” she said.
But not enough has been done by the Department of Toxic Substances Control to protect the health of residents, Solis said.
“Only 44 homes have been cleaned, and I mean, inside and out,” Solis said.
The county’s $2 million will be spent to facilitate cleanup, rapidly assess other potentially contaminated properties and begin a comprehensive health campaign.
Lee said she hopes the County coordinates with DTSC to ensure any data collected is done with the same protocol and does not overlap with the agency’s data.
Last week, a DTSC spokesman said the state had cleaned the yards of 170 homes around the facility and cleaned the “interior of every home where the property owner has granted us access.”
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 also cited the increased risk of cancer linked to other chemicals once emitted by the plant.
“The Exide chemicals have raised the cancer risk of tens of thousands of people around the Exide facility,” said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the county health department’s Toxic Epidemiology Program. “Despite the closure of the facility, this community has to live with an increased cancer risk … for the rest of their lives.”
Anthony Gutierrez, a resident who lived in close proximity to the plant for years, told the board he has cancer and that chemicals from the plant severely stunted his growth.
“When you look at me, you see a 12-year-old boy, but I’m actually 25 years old,” Gutierrez said. “My doctors tell me I shouldn’t be alive today.”
Gutierrez is one of many residents who attributed illness and disease to emissions from the Exide plant.
Lead is not considered a carcinogen by the Centers for Disease Control. However, benzene, arsenic and the industrial chemical 1,3-Butadiene, all of which were used by Exide, are recognized as human carcinogens.
Environmental regulation and cleanup is the state’s responsibility, but Solis said state agencies are not moving with enough urgency, despite meetings with DTSC director Barbara Lee and outreach to Gov. Jerry Brown.
“As long as lead is still in the ground,” residents will be at risk, Solis said.
The neighborhoods of 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.
In a statement, Solis said the DTSC has a “clear and intractable conflict of interest” in managing the cleanup because the agency is liable for its “failure to properly regulate the Exide facility.”
County attorneys are assessing their legal options for forcing the state or Exide to act and plan to meet with the board behind closed doors in the next week or two to discuss those alternatives.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich was among those who raised concerns about the county taking on liability if it steps in to clean up.
“The county is not the culpable party,” said interim County Counsel Mary Wickham, assuring the board that there would be no shifting of responsibility.
However, if county workers stepped in to handle the cleanup directly and were negligent in those efforts, there is a concern that they could be blamed. Direct cleanup efforts are not currently planned.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said federal intervention was not out of the question.
The board’s vote in favor of funding was unanimous.
EGP staff writers contributed to this report.
The battle to close the controversial Exide Technologies plant in Vernon has now become a battle over how quickly and thoroughly homes contaminated by the now-shuttered toxic polluter will be cleaned.
Longtime Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano has been one of the more vocal residents over the years, attending every meeting hosted by the Department of Toxic Substance Control, state regulators tasked with overseeing the cleanup of properties contaminated by Exide.
She was at the meeting when DTSC and federal officials announced the U.S. Attorney had struck a deal with Exide to permanently close down and to pay for the cleaning up its hazardous waste in exchange for avoiding criminal prosecution.
Lea este artículo en Español: DTSC Listo Para Anunciar Plan de Limpieza de Exide
She was at the meeting when DTSC Director Barbara Lee apologized for the agency’s mishandling of its oversight of Exide. She was also at the meeting when residents demanded DTSC not delay testing and clean up of contaminated homes, and she will likely be at the Oct. 28 meeting when DTSC officials are scheduled to outline plans for remediating contamination of as many as ten thousand homes in a newly expanded contamination zone.
Cano, like many east and southeast area residents and environmentalists, has continued to criticize DTSC for moving too slowly with soil sample tests and the clean up of properties found to have unsafe levels of lead, leaving people, many of them children, potentially exposed to the chemical known to cause cancer, neurological deficits, learning disabilities and birth defects.
Funding and personnel shortages have been blamed for some of the delay, but this week, DTSC told EGP they want to be out in the field by the end of the year.
“We’re ready to begin this,” said Ray Leclerc, assistant deputy director for DTSC’s Brownfields and Environmental Restoration Program.
“We can start in a matter of days or weeks after that meeting,” he told EGP Tuesday, referring to the Oct. 28 meeting of the Exide Community Advisory Board, which must approve the agency’s remediation plan. The meeting will be held at Commerce City Hall at 4p.m.
According to Leclerc, DTSC has been working to hire qualified contractors and personnel to conduct the tests and, where needed, safely remove and dispose toxic soil. The targeted testing and contamination zone has been increased to properties within 1.7 miles of the Vernon plant.
Exide originally set aside $9 million to pay for the cleanup of 219 homes north and south of the plant in the communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Maywood.
According to DTSC Project Manager Pete Ruttan, the yards of 186 of those homes will be cleaned by the end of November. Ruttan said the remaining homes have not yet been tested because the homeowners have not given DTSC access to their properties. So far, 44 homeowners have requested and received interior cleaning, he added.
An additional 146 homes were tested in an area beyond the initial scoping area to determine how far Exide’s contamination had spread.
Cano lives in one of those homes.
She said she pushed regulators to test her home after her brother, son and father, fell ill. The home on Opal Street was tested a year ago in October 2014 but it wasn’t until April of this year that she received test results confirming the need for decontamination: a process that has yet to be started.
“I have had to implement a rule in my house” to protect us, Cano told EGP. “Anytime someone goes into the yard they have to immediately take a shower when they get in the house,” she said.
Leclerc said toxic regulators are working on streamlining the process to reduce the testing time down to weeks, perhaps even days. “We are looking at technology that could be used to get results instantly,” he elaborated. Adding staff will also help speed up the turnaround time, he added.
DTSC does not have a firm cost or time estimate for the entire cleanup, Leclerc told EGP, adding it could takes years.
“Before we were talking about hundreds of homes now we are talking about thousands of homes,” Leclerc emphasized. “There are a lot of unknowns, we can’t know for sure what we’re talking about until we do it.”
Some estimates have put cleanup costs between $150 million and $200 million; three to four times higher than the $50 million Exide agreed to pay for the cleanup of its site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million – to be paid out over many years – is intended for residential cleanup. As of August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust. In August, DTSC committed an additional $7 million to continue sampling soil and initiating yard cleanup, focusing first on those properties with the greatest potential lead exposure.
On Tuesday, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she’s unsatisfied with how long the process is taking and called on the state to do more to clean up contaminated soil. Solis said she will ask her colleagues on the board to spend $2 million in county money on the effort.
“This isn’t contaminated soil in a faraway deserted location,” Solis said. “This contaminated soil is in yards and parks where kids play kickball and ride their bikes and then track dirty shoes into the house. These children deserve to be able to play outdoors while not putting their health at risk
Solis said she wants the county’s money to be used to clean homes already identified as contaminated and to identify other residences in need of cleanup, a move being applauded by DTSC.
Leclerc, meanwhile, says the agency has been working diligently to develop a comprehensive plan that adequately covers the much larger area identified for testing.
“We agree we are not working as fast as would like, but we want to do it the right way.”
[On Friday Oct. 23, DTSC clarified only the exteriors – not the interiors – of 184 homes will be cleaned by the end of November.]
The Vernon City Council’s meeting last week was a marked change from meetings of years past when councilmembers unquestioningly took direction and rubber stamped recommendations from a corrupt former city administrator.
Gone was the once shy, quiet and trusting council. Taking its place last week was a council that now demands answers from staff and is not afraid to put items on hold if not satisfied with the responses. It’s the latest indication that a new political era could be taking hold in Vernon in the wake of good governance reforms years in the making.
Spectators at the Oct. 6 council meeting likely did a double take as councilmembers diverted from their usual non-confrontational review of agenda items and spent nearly an hour grilling city staff about their recommendation to sell off city-owned housing in Huntington Park and to raise rents on some residential units in Vernon to pay for needed repairs.
While this type of discourse is common in other cities, it’s a far cry from business as usual in a city whose motto “Exclusively Industrial!” aptly reflects its long held focus on what’s best for the 8,000 businesses that call Vernon home, rather than its small residential population that only recently doubled in size and now totals about 200 people.
Most of the city’s residents – and its electorate – live in city-owned apartments and houses. Only five homes in Vernon are not city-owned properties. The prospect of raising rents did not sit well with the council.
Two councilmembers, Luz Martinez and Melissa Ybarra, excused themselves from the discussion citing conflict of interest, leaving Mayor W. Michael McCormick, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis and newly elected Councilwoman Yvette Woodruff-Perez to push staff for more details and to justify their recommendations.
“If we’re getting money from selling the Huntington Park properties why do we need to increase the rent for tenants,” Davis asked staff repeatedly.
The city owns 31 housing units, 26 in Vernon and 7 in the neighboring city of Huntington Park. The homes were built in the 1940s and 1960s. In 2007, the city did a major remodel of 19 of the Vernon units but did not make repairs to the other 7 units due to a multi-million dollar budget deficit.
With city finances out of the red, staff has proposed renovating the remaining properties. They also have recommended the city sell 3 of the 7 single-family homes and condominiums it owns in Huntington Park.
Public Works Director Kevin Wilson said rents would be raised over $200 a month to recover the cost of improvements such as new appliances, kitchen and bathroom remodeling, new carpet, painting, water and heating system upgrades and lead abatement.
“If we’re going to do anything we need to do these minimal improvements” to avoid larger repairs down road, he cautioned the council.
Tenants are also facing a market-rate rent adjustment expected to take place in mid-2016, according to Deputy City Administrator Kristen Enomoto.
The city’s housing commission, however, says it’s unlikely current tenants can afford an increase over $250.
The figures alarmed the council.
“To increase rent would put a burden on the residents of Vernon” who already have to deal with the disadvantages that come with living in a heavily industrial city, Davis said.
For example, in Vernon “We can’t just walk to get some groceries,” he pointed out.
The focus on rental rates is new in the city, where for decades housing costs were kept artificially low to keep control of the city’s voter pool. During the last five years, however, in response to allegations of political corruption the city has adopted a number of reforms and rents that once were as little as $200 a month have been increased to get them closer to market rate, according to City Administrator Mark Whitworth.
The rate adjustments have brought rents to between $696 to $1,700 for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments and 2 and 3 bedroom single-family homes. The rental fee includes a 30 percent adversity discount to reflect the uniqueness of living in a city that does not have a park, library or amenities common in other cities.
“We don’t want to price people out of housing,” cautioned Stewart Leibowitz, legal counsel to the Vernon Housing Commission. “Most residents have been here a long time and we are uniquely sensitive to that,” he said.
If the city owns the housing units free and clear, why do we need to increase rents to pay for the rehab, Whitworth questioned.
“Where is that $700 to $1300 in rent going?” pushed McCormick.
Funds accrued from rent are used to maintain the properties and deal with issues that may arise, according to Whitworth. Though the costs vary per year, the 2014-2015 general maintenace cost of Vernon-owned housing was approximately $197,000 according to city staff.
“We’re trying to standardize and get the rent and homes” to uniform pricing, responded Enomoto, explaining that tenants in previously remodeled units pay higher rents for their units.
“We don’t want to be slumlords but we don’t want to overspend either,” said the city’s public works director.
Wilson argued that there should be a rent adjustment for tenants whose rents have not been raised to reflect the improved quality of the homes.
“They’re in good shape, but there are two distinct standards,” he said. “Some have clearly been remodeled and others haven’t and the rent reflects that,” he noted.
The mayor thinks money earned from selling off the properties in Huntington Park listed at $398,000 should be used to pay for remodeling residential properties in Vernon, which would cost $37,000 to $100,000 per unit depending on the extent of improvements needed.
“If you do minimal repairs residents might feel ‘the city doesn’t care about us,’” he warned.
McCormick did agree, however, that rents should be inline with other city-owned properties once repairs are made.
Leibowitz reminded the council that new city policies require rents be set at market rate. “We’re dealing with a different set of rules, to be perfectly candid,” he said.
The council decided to table the decision until they get more information and input from the public. Davis directed city staff to do more outreach to inform the public about potential rent increases before the council makes a decision.
Woodruff-Perez told city staff she wants to see a draft of any communication referencing the issue before it’s sent to residents.
“The more we discuss it, the more things come to light that need answers,” she said.
Not too far from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, a car battery shaped sign hangs on a storefront on one of the busiest streets in East Los Angeles, proudly announcing the retailer sells Exide batteries.
The Auto Supply Company on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue is less than five miles south of the embattled acid-lead battery recycler, forced to permanently close in March after years of public outcry over its polluting of local communities and threats of criminal prosecution.
Lea este artículo en Español: Continúa la Venta de Baterías de Exide en el Este de Los Ángeles
Yet, Exide’s poor reputation on the Eastside has not translated to a loss in sales, says Ralph Fernandez, the retailer’s general manager.
According to Fernandez, news that the battery recycler had violated toxic emissions regulations, exposing 110,000 eastside residents to cancer-causing emissions, did not hurt the auto supplier’s sale of Exide batteries. Neither did the forced shut down of the plant as part of a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that allowed Exide to avoid criminal prosecution over its illegal mishandling of hazardous waste, says Fernandez.
Unless you consider sales actually increasing.
“There’s just no correlation, people just don’t care unless it affects them directly,” Fernandez said.
He also told EGP, that despite all the negative media fallout, Exide’s parent company has never written to reassure him that the closure would have no impact on their ability to continue to supply him with Exide brand car batteries, one of only three auto batteries still made in the U.S.
All they sent was a letter saying the Vernon plant was closing, Fernandez explained.
Fernandez said he’s confident the batteries will continue to sell at the East L.A. store, despite being a stone throws away from the epicenter of environmental groups condemning the company.
There’s a misconception out there among some that because the Exide plant is contaminated with lead, the company’s car batteries are also contaminated, but that’s simply not true, Fernandez said.
“Lead acid is not in the air during the oxidizing process” when the battery is made, Fernandez explained. It’s only a problem during the recycling process, he said. Exide currently manufactures batteries at its plants in Missouri, Idaho and Kansas.
The store, located in East L.A. since 1969, has been selling Exide batteries for about 15 years. Fernandez said Exide put up the outdoor sign to help the retailer advertise the batteries.
However, the Auto Supply Company is not the only local supplier selling Exide batteries. They can be found at major retailers like Home Depot, and other national and independent auto supply stores and tire shops in southeast and eastside communities.
Consumers find Exide’s “Made in the USA” branding and moderate price attractive. It’s even the official battery for Nascar.
Angel Campos, 44, was at the store Tuesday to purchase car parts. He told EGP he is concerned about a company that does not protect its consumers and contaminates the environment. But when looking to buy a car battery, other priorities come into play.
“I look for a battery with a brand that has a good reputation for making well-performing batteries,” he said in Spanish while standing outside the store.
Fernandez said he thought twice about selling the batteries, but decided to continue selling them since only one customer has ever brought it to his attention.
Nieve Villegas told EGP she doesn’t know what brand of batter her car uses; that’s something she leaves to her husband. “But it surprises me [Exide] would want to sell their products in the community they contaminated,” she said angrily.
In addition to their East L.A. location, the Auto Supply Company has stores in downtown Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens; all three are fairly close to the Vernon plant and other areas known to have been contaminated by recycler.
Fernandez said the store does not plan to reorder Exide batteries when the current inventory sells out. He said the change has nothing to do with the company’s problems in Vernon, but with pricing.
Maria Garcia, 63, is an East L.A. resident and says she doesn’t blame the retailer for selling Exide batteries. She said Exide is solely responsible.
“It’s scary to think that we cannot get away from this company,” Garcia said in Spanish. “The problem is most people just don’t know or care” about these issues.
Over the last year, the city of Vernon handed out big checks to nonprofits groups through the city’s community fund. Now, before any more checks are printed, the committee overseeing grant funding wants to take a closer look at how the city’s money can best be invested in the southeast area.
The Vernon CommuUNITY Fund, approved by the city council in February, is an outgrowth of efforts to improve the primarily industrial city’s image as an uncaring polluter and corrupt municipality. It’s part of a set of good governance reforms that include a new focus on being a “good neighbor’ to surrounding communities. The goal is to award grants to organizations or government entities for projects and programs that benefit those residing or working in Vernon.
During the fund’s first year, $749,500 in grants was awarded to 17 different nonprofits. Last month, an additional five grants totaling $180,000 was awarded.
Moving ahead, the grant committee wants to look at ways the grant process can be improved.
“We want to take a look at the sphere of influence of Vernon,” City Administrator Mark Whitworth said. To see “If there are areas we are not addressing.”
Ironically, while the industrial city has in recent months tried to look and feel greener, none of the grants went to environmental groups or projects. Instead, most of the money was given to nonprofits offering social services, such as the East Los Angels Women’s Center, Family Heathcare Centers of Greater Los Angeles, Jovenes Inc. and the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center.
Mark Lopez with the environmental justice advocacy group East Yard Communities for a Better Environment, told EGP there are two letters that sum up why his group has not applied for a grant; “P.R.”
“It’s awkward,” Lopez said. “This seems like hush money to improve the city’s image and calm the opposition.”
In 2009, East Yard was one of the organizations involved in the fight to stop Vernon from building a massive power plant, a plan the city eventually abandoned. The group was also very involved in efforts to shut down a controversial polluter in the city, Exide Technologies.
“There are plenty of other investments [Vernon] can make to improve the quality of life,” believes Lopez. He suggested the city use funds to purchase the now closed Exide plant after it is decontaminated and use the site for a project that would benefit the region. He also said the city could use the funds to help pay for the cleanup of properties contaminated by Exide.
Whitworth told EGP the city is open to expanding funding areas that will benefit Vernon’s 200 plus residents and the approximately 50,000 people who work daily in the city, as long as the city is not overrun by applications. “We want to make sure we have enough revenue to meet the needs of applicants,” Whitworth explained. “We don’t want to grow too big, too fast.”
Currently, grants are awarded on a first-come, first serve basis. Applicants not receiving grants during quarterly funding cycles are automatically rolled over to the next cycle.
Deputy City Administrator Kristen Enomoto told EGP the city is considering a more competitive process.
The grant committee must also decide if a separate fund meant for capital projects in the community should be left to accumulate and used on project of larger scale. The current balance of that fund stands at $500,000. Every year, 25 percent of the amount allocated to the CommUNITY fund must be set aside for the separate capital projects funds.
The good government reforms brokered as part of a 2012 deal to keep the city from being disincorporated, call for Vernon set aside funds from the city’s annual budget to the Vernon CommUNITY Fund, which in each of the last two fiscal years amounted to $1 million a year.
The grant committee is set to discuss how to best improve the grant process during a special meeting Sept. 30.
A small breathing machine in his hands and on the verge of tears, Javier Hernandez asked Commerce city officials to explain why they had not do something sooner to stop the lead contamination flowing from a controversial batter-recycling plant in Vernon to Commerce homes.
“We are here to demand a speedy clean up of our area,” Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the council during its bimonthly meeting last week. “I have to use this oxygen machine to sleep for the rest of my life,” he desperately added.
As previously reported by EGP, Commerce officials were caught by surprise when they recently learned that at least one city neighborhood is among the areas state regulators believe to be contaminated with lead from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon.
Concerned about the exposure, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) was asked to attend the city council’s Sept. 8 meeting and to explain their findings to the council and residents.
In March, Exide was forced to permanently close down over its illegally handling of hazardous waste, violations that had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities to dangerous levels of cancer causing levels of lead and arsenic.
On Aug. 20, DTSC announced the contamination area was larger than originally believed, and that new wind pattern modeling had determined that Commerce should be added to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties on the north side of Commerce could be contaminated with lead from the battery-recycling plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.
Gina Solomon, MD. MPH, deputy secretary for Science and Health with California Environmental Protection Agency, Cal EPA, described lead as a type of poison that could cause anemia, abdominal cramps, seizures, kidney damage. It can also lead to neurological and birth defects.
“Lead doesn’t really [ever] go away,” she explained.
Solomon said that while the investigation is ongoing, she “strongly” discourages allowing children to play in the dirt and people gardening with the soil in their backyards.
“People can also take off their shoes or wipe them well on the entrance mat” to prevent tracking the contaminated soil inside their homes, she suggested.
Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca del Rio told the audience she’s worried because DTSC at first said Commerce was not impacted. “Now they say we are but we don’t know to what extent,” she said.
Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo told DTSC’s representatives she is very disappointed that they are not moving faster with their investigation and that they had not yet even notified the Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) about the potential contamination at schools in Commerce.
“You won’t have a draft [of your action plan] until October, that means you will not start sampling until December,” Rebollo said in frustration. “That’s not quick enough.”
DTSC Site Project Manager Su Patel said testing is being delayed due to a lack of available funding, but once they get started they would move quickly to test the large number of properties.
She said the agency would need help from the city to identify and contact property owners.
Which area is contaminated? asked Baca del Rio. “We need to know, to create some relief,” she said.
While Patel was reluctant to specify an area, a map provided by DTSC shows possible contamination in and around the Bristow Park neighborhood.
The focal point should be our schools, we need to highlight any problems around our children, Councilman Hugo Argumedo told DTSC.
Patel said DTSC has been in contact with MUSD and is doing its best to make sure everyone is informed.
“Fix it! Figure out who’s doing the damage,” Baca del Rio told state regulators.
“We are aware we are not the only [contaminated] community, but this community is my priority, as it is the priority of the council,” she said.
Hernandez told EGP he’s tired of hearing promises that the problem will be fixed. He was very upset that the doctor focused on a general study about the impact of lead on children and did not included local statistics in her presentation.
“How is it possible that we allow these people to come in and let them talk to their benefit?” he said. Hernandez wants more than talk, he wants a speedy cleanup.
But according to Solomon, they are still in the very early stages of the investigation in Commerce.
Hernandez’ situation highlights the complexity of identifying with certainty the source of the contamination, at least how it got to where it might be found. Hernandez told EGP he worked for 35 years at a painting company near Exide, and blames the battery recycling plant for his asthma.
Solomon said the agency would like to hear from people like Hernandez and former Exide employees so they can test them for lead, pointing out that most of Exide’s workers did not live in Vernon. She said in cases like Hernandez, who worked nearby—they could have unwittingly spread the contamination to their homes.
“They usually come with lead on their shoes, clothes, inside of their car,” Solomon said. “It is an important issue for them and their families” to consider.
The California Public Utilities Commission will hold community meetings next week on a proposal to begin using the 213 area code in neighborhoods currently served by the 323 area code, which is running out of phone numbers.
According to the commission, the 323 area code is on pace to run out of numbers by March 2018.
The CPUC hopes to begin using the 213 area code in the area by November 2017.
According to the commission, the 323 area code serves a large portion of the city of Los Angeles, along with the cities of Alhambra, Bell, Bell Gardens, Beverly Hills, Commerce, Cudahy, Glendale, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood, Lynwood, Maywood, Montebello, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rosemead, South Gate, South Pasadena, Vernon and West Hollywood.
The 213 area code primarily covers the downtown Los Angeles area.
The CPUC will hold public meetings on the proposal at:
– 10 a.m. Sept. 8 at the South Gate City Council Chamber, 8650 California Ave.;
– 2 p.m. Sept. 8 and 10 a.m. Sept. 9 at Junipero Serra State Building, Carmel Room, 320 W. Fourth St., Los Angeles;
– 2 p.m. Sept. 9 at the South Pasadena City Council Chamber, 1414 Mission St.;
– 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at the South Pasadena Public Library, 1115 El Centro St.; and
– 2 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Memorial Branch Library, 4625 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles.
Public comments can also be submitted by mail or online at www.cpuc.ca.gov/323areacode or by email to email@example.com.
For the first 17 years of his life, Jose Anthony Gutierrez lived in Vernon, not too far from the now closed Exide Technologies plant. He says he is living proof that Exide is to blame for many of the health issues in surrounding communities.
“Take a long hard look at me,” Gutierrez told state regulars last week during a public meeting of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) community advisory group at the Salt Lake Park Community Center in Huntington Park.
“I may look 14 but I’m actually 25 years old,” Gutierrez said. “Doctors told me I shouldn’t be alive today.”
According to Gutierrez, he and his family lived in Vernon because it was what they could afford. When he nearly died of cancer caused by years of lead exposure, the family decided to move to Huntington Park, one of the cities reeling from the fallout of Exide pollution.
“The sad part is I’m still being exposed to arsenic and god knows what else,” he said tearfully.
Just over a week ago, DTSC revealed that as many as 10,000 homes could be contaminated with lead spewed by the former acid-lead battery recycler. State regulators said soil sampling was expanded to a larger geographical area and tests showed a much higher number of properties contaminated than previously believed.
Angry residents living within the contamination zone — from Huntington Park, Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles and other areas near Vernon — packed the advisory committee meeting last Thursday and loudly demanded the state agency immediately begin what could turn out to be the biggest environmental cleanup and public health disaster in California history.
Throughout the meeting, speakers decried DTSC’s years of poor regulation of Exide and voiced distrust of the agency’s ability to handle the cleanup.
“Now no one is willing to take responsibility and pay for the harm,” said Maria Flores, scolding DTSC officials for allowing Exide to continue to operate on an interim-permit for decades despite numerous toxic emission-related violations.
With her elderly father at her side, Flores said he and her husband are very ill. She blames Exide where both men worked for years for her family’s ailments.
“My son was conceived and born while my husband worked there,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “He has severe learning disabilities. He is a seventh grader with a third grade learning capability,” she told officials and their advisors.
Exposure to lead has been linked to learning disabilities and birth defects. Children are especially at risk because they play in the dirt, according to health and environment experts.
Young children who are exposed to lead may also suffer from damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral problems, anemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, hyperactivity and in extreme cases death, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Lead poisoning in adults can cause poor muscle coordination, nerve damage, increase in blood pressure, hearing and vision impairment and reproductive problems.
According to Flores, the car her father drove to work was found to have high levels of lead. He parked the vehicle across the street or in the parking lot of the facility every day for 27 years, she said.
He would load the family into that same car, she said angrily.
Participants at the meeting demanded that the cleanup be done immediately. Questions whirled about the cost and who would pay.
Decontamination costs for the much larger number of properties is going to skyrocket, according to experts. DTSC Chief of Permitting Rizgar Ghazi said the clean up of the Exide plant alone would cost the company $26 million.
Last year, Exide struck a deal with federal authorities and state regulators to permanently close down and set aside $9 million to cleanup 219 homes in exchange for avoiding federal criminal prosecution for its illegal handling of hazardous waste.
So far, lead-tainted soil has been removed from 150 homes north and south of the plant. An additional 146 homes have been tested in an area beyond the initial scoping area to determine how far Exide’s contamination reaches.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee informed the crowd that the $7 million received from the state last week would be used to “swiftly” clean homes with lead levels above 1,000 parts per million and to conduct additional testing in the expanded zone, which now includes Commerce as well as Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park.
“How many times have we heard that,” several people in the audience scoffed over the use of the word “swiftly.”
DTSC officials continued to emphasize the agency’s commitment to cleaning up the community and holding all responsible parties accountable.
A capability many in the audience questioned.
Boyle Heights resident Yolanda Gonzalez and other speakers urged elected officials and state regulators to push California, Gov. Brown specifically, to declare a state of emergency and for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to step in and coordinate a mass evacuation from homes.
Families should be relocated and compensated for their homes and their sickness, Gonzalez said.
The cost to cleanup one residential property stands at $39,000, according to Ghazi.
Lee said DTSC is working to secure funds for the expanded residential cleanup, which could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia represents Commerce and says she does not want any more funds used for testing: “We just need to clean up,” she said impatiently.
DTSC officials countered that testing is necessary to helps prioritize cleanup of properties with the highest contamination. Lee said the agency and its partners are looking at chemicals that could be the “smoking gun” to directly link the contamination to Exide.
Her words seemed to do little to move the hundreds of residents at the meeting to have faith in the agency’s plan.
“No matter what is in that soil, it’s a result of your failure,” said Terry Cano. “Clean it up first and figure it out later.”