Fire Damages Vernon building

August 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A fire damaged ventilation ducting at a commercial building in Vernon Wednesday, but no one was hurt.

Firefighters sent to the 2400 block of East 25th Street about 6:15 a.m. determined that the fire had not affected the building and was limited to the ductwork, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported.

Hazardous materials teams from the LAFD and the Vernon Fire Department were sent to the scene as a precaution because of possible lead hazards.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

New Center to Offer ‘Specialized’ Fire Training

July 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Ground was broken Tuesday on a new regional training center where firefighters from Vernon and surrounding cities will receive specialized firefighting training when the facility opens.

The center, located next to Vernon Fire Station No. 1, will provide training in the handling of hazardous materials and urban search and rescue to firefighters from 31 fire agencies in the region.

The facility is being built in partnership with the Los Angeles Area Fire Chief’s Association.

“All of the cities and communities in Southeast L.A. County will benefit by having the best trained firefighters our cities can provide,” said Vernon Mayor William ‘Bill’ Davis.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Tuesday to mark the start of construction on the Vernon Fire Regional Training Center.  (City of Vernon)

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Tuesday to mark the start of construction on the Vernon Fire Regional Training Center. (City of Vernon)

The city of Vernon provided funds to build and equip the center, which will be managed by the Vernon Fire Department.

A recent fire in nearby Maywood, which involved hazardous materials, demonstrated how difficult fires are to combat, Vernon’s mayor said, noting the importance of the new training facility.

“Without a skilled team of trained HazMat firefighters, the Maywood incident might have gotten out of control, caused greater damage, and put nearby residents at greater risk.”

Man Arrested in Connection to Vernon Hit-and-Run

July 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A 29-year-old man suspected of causing a fatal accident in Vernon and fleeing the scene was arrested in Alabama and sent back to California to face charges, authorities said Friday.

Guillermo Ortiz was arrested in Demopolis, Alabama, July 2 when police stopped him for an expired registration on his big rig, Vernon police Sgt. Brandon Gray said.

“During the course of their investigation, Demopolis Police Department officers learned of an outstanding arrest warrant for Ortiz as a result of his involvement in a fatal hit and run traffic collision in the City of Vernon,” Gray said.

Vernon police detectives brought Ortiz back to Southern California on July 8 and booked him into the Huntington Park jail, the sergeant said.

Ortiz was arraigned on July 12 and pled not guilty to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI, fleeing the scene of a fatal traffic collision and fleeing the scene of a non-injury traffic collision, Gray said.

Ortiz was being held on $235,000 bail in the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, with a return to a Norwalk court scheduled for July 26, according to inmate booking records.

Oritz is accused of running a red light while westbound on 37th Street on Saturday, April 30, and colliding with a pickup truck with two men inside that was northbound on Santa Fe Avenue, Gray said.

The Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck became lodged underneath the big rig’s trailer. Ortiz is accused of unhooking the trailer from his cab and driving away, Gray said.

The driver of the pickup suffered moderate injuries. The passenger, 28-year-old Armando Murillo, of Pacoima, was pronounced dead at the scene, Gray said.

Maywood Fire Displaces Families: Triggers Emergency Declaration

June 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency Tuesday in the wake of last week’s explosive fire at a Maywood warehouse, saying hazardous levels of magnesium were found in the fire ash.

Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended the declaration and proposed reaching out to Gov. Jerry Brown to ask that he declare a state emergency. Both motions were unanimously approved.

“Over 300 residents were impacted,” Solis said. “Many were not able to go back to their homes” because of magnesium levels.

It took three days for the blaze, which broke out June 14, to be fully extinguished.
Families living on the south side of 52nd Street were cleared to go back into their homes last Wednesday evening, but those on the other side of the street, closer to the fire, sheltered at the local YMCA.

The Maywood YMCA doesn’t have air-conditioning, so when temperatures soared this weekend, county officials helped residents move into area hotels.

On Friday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced that samples from areas around the fire scene had been tested, and a preliminary analysis “showed ambient metal concentrations did not exceed short-term, health-based thresholds.

“The information … only pertains to the results from preliminary metals sampling near the incident,” the SCAQMD said in a statement.

“Additional laboratory analysis is still underway for other pollutants and from other sampling locations. Updates will be provided as results become available.”

The three-alarm fire — reported at 2:30 a.m. June 14 — in the 3500 block of Fruitland Avenue ripped through a pair of commercial buildings early the first morning, sparking a series of strong explosions and sending a thick plume of noxious smoke over the region.

Firefighters found flames shooting through the roofs of two structures, a warehouse serving Gemini Plastic Enterprises and a metal-recycling plant.

Crews began pouring water on the flames, but the oxygen from the water created a chemical reaction with the burning magnesium, one of the metals being stored at the facility and awaiting recycling, producing what one fire official described as “fireballs” and setting off strong explosions.

In addition to magnesium, other metals such as coppers, zinc and lead were present at the metal-recycling plant, along with chemicals and propane, according to County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

Crews were able to prevent the blaze from spreading from the two commercial structures that were destroyed to other businesses and nearby homes.

Da Xiong Pan, the owner of the recycling facility, was recently charged with multiple felonies for alleged improper storage and disposal of hazardous materials at the site, according to media reports, which also stated that Pan, who owns Panda International Trading Co. at 3570 Fruitland Ave., pleaded not guilty to five felony charges last month.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

More Dining Options For Workers in Vernon

June 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

When lunch hour hits in Vernon, the more than 50,000 men and women who report to work at one of the city’s 1,800 businesses have only about a dozen or so eateries to choose from, however, a new development under construction could soon broaden their options.

Located on the northwest border of Vernon, the 15,000-square-foot project on Alameda and 25th Street has already signed up Jersey Mike’s Subs as a tenant.

“We noticed there was a lack of high quality retail options in the industrial city and wanted to fill that void,” explained Jessica Pisula, director of marketing for the project’s developer, Dedeaux Properties.

The development is expected to open by Labor Day, Pisula told EGP, and could bring in 10 new retailers – nearly doubling the city’s current restaurant options.

The developer bought the property from the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority and in 2015 the city rezoned it for retail use.

Dedeaux Properties has a long history of developing projects within the city of Vernon and other industrial cities like neighboring Commerce and that experience led to their decision to develop a retail project in Vernon, Pisula said.

A new retail development located on the intersection of 25th and Alameda Street will bring new lunch options to Vernon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A new retail development located on the intersection of 25th and Alameda Street will bring new lunch options to Vernon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“When we meet our Vernon clients for lunch, we’re very limited” as to where to go, she said, adding she hopes the development will bring a variety of dining options.

With over 21,000 employees in a one-mile radius and over 280,000 employees within 3-miles, the location is appealing to potential tenants, according to Daniel Firtel, managing director of the commercial real estate firm Argent Retail Advisors, who added they are already in negotiations with several restaurants,

“There are a lot of workers but nowhere to eat,” he noted. “There is definitely a need.”

Founded as a city focused on industry rather than residential, there are not many lots in Vernon zoned for retail use. Instead, much of the land is used for large-scale industry like food processors, and manufacturers of fashion apparel, furniture and electronics, as wells as paper product producers and business logistic companies. Farmer John, BCBG Maxazria, Gaviña Gourmet Coffee and Tapatio Hot Sauce are just a few of the well-known companies that call Vernon home.

Mayor William “Bill” Davis told EGP that the new development is a prime example of Vernon’s ability to attract new industrial development, grow its retail presence and retain businesses.

“We have long argued that Vernon is an ideal location for diverse business interests,” Davis said.

The corner lot borders the city of Los Angeles and is highly visible to commuters. It is estimated that over 44,000 cars drive past the property everyday.

Fee on Automobile Batteries Could Pay for Lead Cleanup

June 9, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

A California bill aimed at funding the cleanup of lead-contaminated communities like those surrounding the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant, could soon require consumers and manufactures to each pay a $1 fee for every lead-acid car battery sold in the state.

Under the Lead Acid Battery Recycling Act (AB 2153)—approved by the State Assembly last Friday—monies collected would be deposited into a fund to pay for cleanup efforts like those currently underway in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Maywood and Huntington Park, where as many as 10,000 homes may have been contaminated by the former lead smelter. Exposure to lead has been liked to cancer, birth defects and cognitive development issues in children, pregnant women and the elderly.

“The State Assembly is sending a clear message to residents in the affected communities that they do matter and we will no longer let them sit on poisoned soil,” the bill’s author Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia said.

For years, Exide Technologies recycled hundreds of lead-acid car batteries at its Vernon site, amassing dozens of hazardous waste violations in the process. One of just two such facilities west of the Rockies, Exide was found to have emitted emissions of arsenic and lead into the air and soil, exposing 110,000 east and southeast residents to cancer-causing toxins.

State officials estimate the cost to clean contaminated properties could be as high as $500 million, which Exide is responsible for paying for under an agreement with the .S. Attorney’s Office, but could take years to collect and in the end not cover the total cost.

If approved, Garcia estimates the new fee would raise up $70 million a year for the Lead-Acid Battery Cleanup Fund.

“It’s something we have been talking about for years,” said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “It is enough for all lead issues in California? No. But it’s a step in the right direction.”

Lead acid batteries sit on the shelf of Auto Supply in East Los Angeles; the retailer previously sold Exide brand batteries. (Courtesy of David Scher)

Lead acid batteries sit on the shelf of Auto Supply in East Los Angeles; the retailer previously sold Exide brand batteries. (Courtesy of David Scher)

David Scher, owner of Auto Supply in East Los Angeles, proudly sold Exide car batteries for years. Last year, after realizing the company “was not acting like a good corporate citizen,” Scher said he switched to a different vendor.

Scher told EGP he does not like the idea of customers paying upfront for the cleanup caused by corporate polluters.
“It shouldn’t have got to this point,” he said. “They are punishing the victims.”

Lead-acid car batteries range from $65 to $176 at the East L.A. business, but Scher does not believe the new fee will impact sales.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Brown earlier this year approved a $176.6 million loan to help 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 funds collected from the fee would be used to re-pay the multi-million dollar loan until funds are recovered from Exide or any other responsible parties.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, the bill’s co-author, explains the fund is a way for the state to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

It creates a legal avenue for state dollars to be used to address environmental issues while the state goes after polluters.

“The Exide situation taught California that we were not prepared for something like this,” said Santiago, referring to what many believe is going to be the largest and most costly environmental cleanup in state history.

AB 2153 also requires battery manufacturers to incorporate a recycling symbol on the battery, informing consumers the product must be recycled properly. Those who don’t comply could be fined up to $1,000 per day’ those funds would also be deposited to the fund.

The senate version of the bill needs to be approved before it can move on to the governor, which state officials anticipate could happen by August. If signed by the governor, the new fee would take effect January 1, 2017.

“Exide continues to plague my backyard with the remnants of lead contamination,” Garcia said following the bill’s approval in the Assembly.

“This bill is extremely vital to ensure cleanup and bring relief to our communities.”

Exide: From Brownfield to Classroom

April 28, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

East and southeast Los Angeles County area residents could soon be trained to test for environmental damages like those in their own backyard.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control plans in coming months to roll out a job and development training program open to residents living in the areas impacted by lead contamination from the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

“This is truly a unique program and a first for DTSC,” says Ana Mascarenas, assistant director for environmental justice and tribal affairs for DTSC. For once, the “local community can benefit directly and be a part of restorative justice,” Mascarenas told EGP.

The $176.6 million Exide cleanup package signed by Gov. Brown last week includes $1.2 million to train local groups and residents in skills required to take part in the testing and cleanup process.

DTSC, the state regulatory agency overseeing the Exide cleanup, is currently consulting with experts in the job-training field to develop its program, and they will solicit input from the community during an Exide Advisory Committee meeting being held today.

Mascarenas told EGP that DTSC plans to model its program after the California Environmental Protection Agency’s, CalEPA, Brownfields Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, which has prepared local residents to clean up contaminated properties while at the same time preparing them for careers in environmental remediation.

“We want this program to prepare residents for green jobs that will help to immediately clean up the neighborhood, while providing a long term [positive] impact for the community’s economy,” Mascarenas said.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s 53rd District includes many of the communities polluted by Exide, and he is the author of the bill funding the Exide cleanup and training program. He told EGP that creating jobs in the state’s third poorest district was an important consideration.

“The least the state can do is offer jobs to the community it dumped on for decades,” he said.

“The community is in desperate need of jobs and must be cleaned up,” he said, explaining the dual benefit to communities like Boyle Heights and Vernon.

The idea to include a clause promoting the use of local businesses and to give local residents the skills needed to be part of the decontamination effort is the results of hours spent listening to constituents testify at Exide-related public hearings, explained Santiago.

“When money is expended, I want to make sure it is expended in the impacted district and used to provide local jobs,” he told EGP.

While details for the training program are still in the works, it’s likely those who sign up will have to commit 12 to 16 weeks to the program, which will include lead awareness classes, certifications and exposure to tools used for remediation.

“These certificates will not be exclusive to just Exide,” said Mascarenas, “they can apply these skills to DTSC cleanup sites across the state.”

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples.  (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Completing the training, however, is not a guarantee for employment, emphasized DTSC, although DTSC and state legislators will stress the importance of hiring those trained through the program to the contractors hired to cleanup residential properties, clarified Mascarenas.

Mark Lopez, executive director for East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP the community wants reassurance local hiring is not just promoted but required.

East Yards, together with other community activists, have drafted language detailing their ideal local hire and workforce development program, including a demand that at least 50 percent of all jobs created directly or indirectly by the cleanup effort be performed by local hires, with 20 percent specifically set aside for low-income residents.

Training will vary by position. Some groups will simply be trained to do outreach, something DTSC has been doing for months.

Members of East Yards, for example, have already been going door to door in the communities surrounding the Exide plant to get the access agreements needed to test for lead.

“We want to understand the intimate details involved with the clean up so that we can communicate that to the community,” explained Lopez explained.

Lopez told EGP he would like to see students from the YouthBuild Charter Schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles benefit from the program. As a dropout recovery school, students at YouthBuild often suffer from learning disabilities, circumstances surrounding violence and issues that can be correlated to exposure to lead, he pointed out DTSC expects to have cleaned up 250 homes by June, using funds previously obtained from Exide and the state. The agency is waiting on the results of a still to be conducted environmental impact report before it continues with the cleanup of 2,500 additional homes, hopefully beginning sometime next spring.

Over 40 eastside residents have already been trained and certified to operate the XRF devices being used to sample soil on properties near Exide.

DTSC says it wants to have hundreds of local residents trained and ready to start when remediation, which could take at last two years, gets underway. Soil testing will continue in the meantime, Mascarenas said.

The Exide plant was permanently closed March 2015 after operating 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.

“In many ways, this will help to remediate the damage done to the community,” acknowledges Lopez.

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation to Fund Exide Clean-Up

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation today providing $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods surrounding the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon.

“Children should be able to play in yards free from toxics,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re doubling down on efforts to protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”

State officials said the funding would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.

There was no immediate word on when the effort would begin or how long it would take. The cleanup effort is subject to an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Assembly Majority Whip Miguel Santiago applauded Gov. Brown for signing the Exide Clean-Up Package comprised of Assembly Bill 118 and Senate Bill 93.

“The Exide Technologies facility has been able to pollute my community unabated for more than 33 years, which is entirely inexcusable,” said Santiago, author of AB 118.

“Today’s action is an historic step toward fully resolving this appalling situation; but make no mistake – our work is not done here.”

The Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed 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.

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, called for a fast start to the state’s cleanup efforts.

“We’ve heard the distressing news recently that children living near the closed Exide plant had elevated blood lead levels so there’s no time to waste,” he said. “… I will continue working closely with state and local partners so that the testing and cleanup of homes moves forward expeditiously
and above all, in partnership with the families impacted by the lead contamination. We shouldn’t lose focus of what’s at stake here – restoring a clean and safe environment for our families.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti released a Spanish-language public service announcement, also featuring actress Angelica Vale, urging residents near the plant to have their property tested, and to undergo blood-lead level testing.

“My office will do everything possible to help the (Department of Toxic Substances Control) expedite the cleanup,” Garcetti said. “Identifying the areas and the people affected by lead contamination is a critical first step.”

The city of Commerce, in conjunction with the County health department, will be conducting free confidential lead blood testing at Rosewood Park from 9a.m. to 3p.m. during the annual Kids Are Cute Baby Show. The park is located at 5600 Harbor St. Commerce 90040. For more information, call (323) 722-4805.

EGP staff writers contributed to this report.

Write-In Candidate Upends Vernon Election

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In an unexpected turn of events, a write-in candidate has beat out a longtime councilman for a seat on the Vernon City Council.

Leticia Lopez, 32, made Vernon history April 12 when she beat out Mayor W. Michael McCormick by two votes.

City Clerk Maria E. Ayala and a four-member election canvassing board declared Lopez the winner Monday following a final canvass of 7 outstanding ballots. Lopez received 21 votes to McCormick’s 14. A second write-in candidate, David J. Ybarra, received one vote.

McCormick served on the council for 42 years.

It was a big departure from past elections where candidates often ran unopposed.

“I went door to door to talk to neighbors,” Lopez told EGP, explaining her victory. “I asked them about their concerns and dreams for the city and told them this wasn’t the first and last time they would see me: I would come back.”

On Tuesday, Lopez joined Councilmembers Melissa Ybarra, Luz Martinez and newly appointed Mayor Pro Tem Yvette Woodruff-Perez and Mayor William “Bill” Davis behind the dais and will serve a five-year term. Woodruff-Perez is the first woman to serve as Vernon’s Mayor Pro Tem.

For years, the five-person council was made up entirely of men. Now women – all Latinas — have four of the five seats, leading one department head to appropriately refer to the council as “mayor and councilwomen.”

Marisa Olguin, president and C.E.O. of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, told EGP the results of the election are “historic and groundbreaking.”

For the first time in Vernon’s history, four of the five-member City Council are women. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez )

For the first time in Vernon’s history, four of the five-member City Council are women. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez )

“It really symbolizes the changes happening,” she said. “Residents are voting for change.”
Lopez, a family advocate assigned to the Human Services Association’s Head Start program, told EGP she ultimately decided to run to be an advocate at home.

Lopez has a Bachelors Degree in Human Development from Cal State Long Beach and is currently working on her masters at Pacific Oaks College.

“I wanted to be a voice for residents,” she said. “I want to form a community, a medium for industry, employees and neighbors.”

Lopez lived in nearby Huntington Park before moving into a home adjacent to Vernon City Hall two years ago. The mother of two says she and her husband have kept an eye on the issues brought on by the now shuttered Exide plant in Vernon.

“[Exide] has impacted my life,” she said. “I don’t let my children play in the backyard,” she pointed out.

Lopez plans to monitor state funds coming in to help expedite the cleanup and says she hopes to join Ybarra’s efforts to make the city itself more family-friendly, perhaps by opening a public park.

Lopez told EGP she is somewhat familiar with the industrial city’s dark past, but has seen the city become more transparent in recent years.

“I’m coming with a fresh, positive outlook and I want a clear mind free of negativity so that I make the best decisions for my city now,” she said adamantly.

“These are exciting times here in Vernon with the new vision and new direction it is going in,” said City Administrator Carlos R. Fandino Tuesday, welcoming Lopez to the “Vernon family.”

Noting the number of fresh faces on the council and new department heads, Fandino suggested the city consider holding a retreat to discuss their vision for Vernon.

Former California Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp joined the city as its independent reform monitor in 2011 and now serves as Vernon’s Independent Special Counsel, and says, “Vernon has really turned a new leaf.”

“All these tremendous changes are very healthy,” he told EGP.

Van de Kamp believes the biggest issue facing the new council is how to handle pension liabilities and still balance the budget. In an often-repeated refrain, he said councilmembers “need to ask questions. They must make sure the city is on its path to meet the needs of the businesses and residents,” he explained.

While the total number of votes cast might not generate much celebration outside Vernon, Ayala said she is proud of Vernon’s 51 percent voter turnout. The city has been working on increasing its electorate, going as far as building new housing to increase the voter pool. This election marked the first time those new voters had a chance to cast a ballot.

Yet, while the city’s population has doubled, voter registrations only increased by six since the last election. Van de Kamp told EGP he has not seen as many registered voters from the new Vernon Village Park as he would like.

“Looking ahead, we must continue to do outreach with the electorate,” Ayala acknowledged.

Correction 12:50 p.m. April 28, 2016 An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Yvette Woodruff-Perez as Lyvette. The article also inaccurately stated that 36 out of the 72 registered voters reflected the voter turnout when in fact it related to the ballots counted.

Write-In Candidate Leading in Vernon Race

April 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Two votes may make the difference in Vernon’s latest election, according to a preliminary vote count that has a write-in candidate leading a longtime sitting councilman.

Leticia Lopez received 15 votes, while Mayor W. Michael McCormick received 13 votes, according to the unofficial vote tally. A second write-in candidate, David J. Ibarra, received one vote during Tuesday’s city council race.

Vernon uses a vote-by-mail format for all its elections, and according to the city clerk’s office, 33 of 72 potential vote-by-mail ballots were received by Tuesday, Election Day. One ballot was disallowed because it was missing the voter signature and three ballots are pending voter signature verification.

If Lopez is declared the winner, four of the five Vernon council members will be Latina, a first in the industrial city’s history.

A final vote canvass of all outstanding and pending ballots, including those that were postmarked by the April 12 deadline, will be conducted on Monday, April 18 at 1 p.m.

McCormick has served on Vernon’s City Council since 1974.

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