DTSC Director Apologizes to Eastside Residents

April 10, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

[Updated: April 16, 12p.m.]

“I’m sorry.” Two words Eastside residents never thought they would hear from the state agency charged with regulating a controversial Vernon-based acid-lead battery recycler found to have repeatedly violated toxic chemical air emissions standards.

For the first time since taking the helm of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Director Barbara Lee personally addressed a public meeting discussing the now-closed Exide Technologies plant. DTSC has been heavily criticized for “failing” to protect the public from arsenic and lead emissions, chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological damage.

“I know many feel the department has failed you, I want to start of by saying I’m very sorry,” Lee told hundreds of residents and environmental activists during a meeting April 9 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to discuss Exide’s closure plan.

The tone at last week’s meeting was quieter and less combative then past meetings, but skepticism and mistrust still hung heavy in the air.

“We want to know what happened …we want to know who is responsible,” demanded Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justices.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee apologizes to eastside residents Thursday at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee apologizes to eastside residents Thursday at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Lopez asked Lee if she would consider opening a criminal investigation into DTSC’s handling of the Vernon plant, which it allowed to operate on an interim permit for decades despite being found to have exposed eastside residents to cancer-causing toxins.

Lee did not at first directly respond to the request, instead denying any criminal activity on the part of the department, but Lopez pressed on.

“We want accountability. What happened before was not your fault, but moving forward is all your responsibility,” said Lopez, drawing loud applause from the approximately 200 people at the meeting.

“Would you be willing to let me think about it?” Lee asked.

Dozens of members of the Los Angeles Latino Business Chamber of Commerce attended the Distinguished Speakers Series event April 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Dozens of members of the Los Angeles Latino Business Chamber of Commerce attended the Distinguished Speakers Series event April 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Lopez agreed, explaining he didn’t expect the DTSC director to make a decision right then and there. “I just want to make sure you respond on the record in front of all of us,” he said.

Lee was appointed to head DTSC about four months ago and was not part of the protracted battle to shutter the troubled plant, but said she understands why residents mistrust the agency.

“It’s important we do not let this happen again,” she said, promising to do things differently moving forward.

For more than a decade, area residents complained to DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District about Exide, but it took an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office to permanently close down the facility.

Federal authorities announced last month that they had struck a deal to close the plant in exchange for Exide and its executives avoiding criminal prosecution for their illegal handling of hazardous waste. The deal requires Exide to pay the entire cost to clean its plant and homes in the surrounding community found to have been contaminated. DTSC will oversee the closure and clean up.

“We won folks,” Monsignor John Moretta happily told the crowd.

However, not everyone is as convinced or ready to forgive.

“I don’t want to hear I’m sorry because nobody is more sorry than me,” said a tearful Terry Cano before she shared that her father had died from cancer she believes was caused by Exide’s emissions.

“You’re telling me this is the best you can do,” she said, angry that there will be no criminal prosecutions.

Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano shared her concerns with the way DTSC handled the Exide plant in Vernon last week at Resurrection Church. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Boyle Heights resident Terry Cano shared her concerns with the way DTSC handled the Exide plant in Vernon last week at Resurrection Church. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The meeting drew residents from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Commerce and Huntington Park, the area most heavily impacted by Exide generated pollution. Several people said the deal did not do enough to compensate the people harmed by the Vernon plant.

Teresa Marquez told Lee she believes the director wants to move the agency forward, but questioned whether any DTSC employee had been fired over the agency’s handling of the facility.

Lee said DTSC is being overhauled and new deputy directors have been brought in to replace staff no longer at the agency.

That prompted Lopez to again push for a criminal investigation.

“We want to know where they are now and if they are working for another similar agency making those same [bad] decisions,” he said. There is no victory until a closer look is taken at the systemic problems that allowed a company like Exide to keep polluting the community for so long, without that, real change is not possible, Lopez said.

A Huntington Park resident asked Lee to consider expanding the area being tested for lead and arsenic to include more nearby communities. Currently, testing is focused on East L.A., Boyle Heights and Maywood, which Lee explained was determined by AQMD modeling that identified the areas most likely to be contaminated.

“Predictions also come in the form of weather forecasts and they’re not always right,” the resident responded.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, pictured right, apologizes to eastside residents at Resurrection Church April 9 (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, pictured right, apologizes to eastside residents at Resurrection Church April 9 (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Moving forward, Exide has to submit a closure/post closure plan to DTSC by May 15. The agency will review the plans for compliance then present the plan to the public for comment sometime in the fall. Removal of the buildings and structures at the site is expected to start in spring 2016 and take 19-24 months to complete.

“For too many years we did not listen well to you,” Lee told the audience, acknowledging that many residents are not yet ready to trust the agencies responsible for regulating Exide.

“I don’t expect by standing here I will change that, I have to earn your trust,” she said. “I can’t promise you I will always get it right, but I will always give it my best. I hope you will be ready to take one step forward with us,” she said.

“It’s refreshing to hear a different tone,” remarked Maywood Councilman Oscar Magaña.

But for Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez, the fight is far from over.

“We haven’t won,” he said, “we just threw the first punch that will change the momentum.”

 

 

Vernon Election April 14

April 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Vernon residents will elect a new city councilmember during Tuesday’s vote-by-mail election.

Yvette Woodruff-Perez and Dennis E. Roberts will go head to head to win the seat currently held by Councilman Richard Maisano, who declined to run for re-election. Maisana was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacant seat on the council.

Since then, the city ordinance was changed to prohibit the appointment of city council members.

Voters will also decide on two ballot measures.

Measure O would amend the city charter to clarify that during an election with multiple seats, the candidates with the next subsequent highest number of votes in an election will fill the seat that is unexpired, after all full terms are filled.

Measure P would allow the city council to fix the duties, tenure and compensation of officers by any means it deems appropriate.

Voters can mail their ballot or drop it off at the city clerk’s office located at 4305 S. Santa Fe Ave, Vernon 90058 by 8p.m. April 14.

For more information, call the City Clerk’s office at (323) 583-8811 extension 546 or email cityclerk@ci.vernon.ca.us.

Developing A Transportion Plan from the Seat of a Bike

April 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A coalition of southeast cities is working to change their streets one pedal, one foot at a time, reaching out to bicyclists and pedestrians who travel through their cities.

Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, Vernon and now Maywood are hosting free, informal bike rides where they hope to obtain feedback from residents to help them create a master pedestrian/bike plan for the region.

“Nearly all our neighboring cities already have [bike] plans,” but “none of us have a plan in place,” said Chau L. Vu, public works director for Bell Gardens  – the city spearheading the initiative.

The cities are applying for Active Transportation Program (ATP) grants to pay for a study that would ultimately be used to pursue infrastructure funds for bike paths, new sidewalks or traffic roundabouts.

The application process calls for outreach to the community, which the cities are doing during 6-mile long bike tours organized by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Each tour features a discussion on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.

A ride was held Thursday place today at 1p.m., taking off from Bell Gardens High School. Riders  discussed how walking and biking can support the goal of creating a healthier region.

“Our communities have been historically under-resourced,” said Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities – which was scheduled to moderate Thursday’s discussion.

During a bike ride last month in Cudahy, participants said more bike lanes and wider sidewalks are what’s needed, said Bryan Moller, policy and outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

“Many [bicyclists] said they currently don’t feel drivers pay attention to them,” Moller said. “People don’t feel safe.”

About 25 bicyclists ranging in age from 21 to 60 took part in the ride along the Los Angeles River, stopping along the way to discuss how to improve access to the river and downtown L.A. for southeast cyclists and pedestrians.

“We just want to get a gauge” of the needs in the region, Vu said. “These meetings are giving residents an opportunity to express the type of problems or safety issues they face.”

Commerce Public Work Director Maryam Babaki told EGP she is excited about the health benefits that such plans could bring.

Southeast residents at bike ride in Cudahy last month. (Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition)

Southeast residents at bike ride in Cudahy last month. (Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition)

“Encouraging biking and walking reduces a community’s dependence on automobiles, brings vitality and allows the residents to become more active, as well as participatory in their communities,” she said. “It also reduces air pollution and creates an equitable transportation network for all regardless of age, physical ability or income.”

“These are cities with huge numbers of bicyclists and people who use public transportation,” Moller pointed out.

The cities say before now they did not have the resources to fund the cost of developing a master transportation plan for the region, but that could change if they receive an ATP grant.

The application is due in June and award recipients should be announced by the end of the year.

“Here in the southeast, we all have similar demographics, we are so close to each other…it makes sense to work together,” said Vu, adding that “Some of our residents work in the rest of the cities and vice versa.”

 

4-10-15: Story updated to reflect ride already took place. Headline Changed.

AQMD Rule Targets Rendering Plants

April 9, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Driving near any of the five rendering plants in Vernon may cause you to wrinkle your nose and quickly roll up your windows to avoid the unpleasant odor coming from the facilities.

Vernon has been home to slaughterhouses and rendering plants like Farmer John for years, but while the city is mostly industrial, it is surrounded by residential neighborhoods in nearby cities.

Environmentalists say local residents have complained for decades about the stench coming from the facilities.

Now, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is stepping in and has proposed a new rule aimed at reducing the smelly emissions, changes a Vernon committee opposed in a letter sent to the agency.

 

Vernon is home to Farmer Johns, makers of the “Dodger Dog.” (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Vernon is home to Farmer John, makers of the “Dodger Dog.” (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Rule (PR) 415, first proposed in November 2014, would require new and existing rendering facilities, which convert animal waste into other usable commodities, to make equipment changes and implement best management practices.

The proposed rule, set to go before AQMD’s Governing Board July 10, is the result of findings by the Clean Communities Plan for Boyle Heights pilot program, which identified the air quality issue in communities near Vernon. Representatives of public officials, environmental agencies, labor unions and the medical community are part of the pilot.

“The very consistent, terrible smell has covered the southeast and forced people indoors for years,” said Mark Lopez of the environmental justice group East Yard Communities.

There are currently five rendering facilities in the entire Los Angeles Basin, all of them in Vernon and relatively close to one another. They are adjacent to the communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Commerce.

According to AQMD, untreated emissions can be detected up to 20 miles away.

“Vernon was set up as an industrial city,” before homes were built in the surrounding communities, explains Leonard Grossberg, Vernon’s director of health and environmental control. “Now we need to be able to live in a symbiotic way,” he said, explaining the decision to weigh in on behalf of the city businesses that would be impacted.

Grossberg told EGP the city and area businesses have made odor control a priority for maintaining quality of life for their neighbors, but added the proposed rule changes fail to take into consideration when the smells are produced and how they can best be mitigated.

Last week, the Green Vernon Commission – created by the city to address sustainability and environmental responsibility issues ¬– sent a letter to AQMD asking the agency to delay the rulemaking process for 180 days to give the facilities time to present “vital information” they feel the agency did not consider.

“Businesses did not hear from AQMD until after they enacted the rules,” Grossberg said. “It was all done really without the input of businesses.”

Peter Corselli, one of the members of the Vernon Green Commission, told EGP the rule is a step in the wrong direction.

“This rule is based on nothing but a completely subjective nose,” he said.

Although Corselli, vice president of the U.S. Growers Cold Storage, will not be affected by the rendering rule, he told EGP he is concerned the stricter regulations will drive business out of town.

“At some point they [regulators] are going to push too hard and the businesses are going to pack up and move,” he said.

Grossberg told EGP he believes AQMD’s extra scrutiny and stricter air quality guidelines are the result of the long battle over emissions from Vernon-based lead battery recycler Exide Technologies, which last month struck a deal to shut down permanently to avoid criminal prosecution.

“Right now the public has the ear of AQMD,” Grossberg said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw Exide as a triumph and are now moving on to the next target,” Corselli told EGP.

AQMD disputes that claim and says a plan to address rendering plant odors has long been a priority for the community.

“The issue of rendering odors has been around for decades and is not a new issue,” AQMD officials told EGP in an email. “The issues at the Exide facility are completely independent and unrelated to this rule.”

According to AQMD, the agency has received comments from affected communities and requests for AQMD to take action.

AQMD would not say if it will delay the process, but did note that “staff is actively considering all comments received” and that a public hearing scheduled for May 1 has been pushed back to July.

The city’s five rendering plants estimate complying with the rule changes could cost each of the facilities around $1 million, said Grossberg, even though all the facilities are currently complying with air quality standards.

Citing information from the city’s fire department, the commission expressed concern that construction requirements, such as the enclosure of all processing areas, would violate the city’s fire code.

“The Vernon Fire Marshall would object to enclosing any processing areas as it would make fighting grease/oil fires more difficult,” reads the letter to AQMD.

Upgrades could require the plants to close during construction, putting 800 rendering jobs at stake, according to the commission.

Farmer John is the one of the largest employers in the city, employing nearly 1,300 workers. Corselli told EGP further regulating what is essentially a nuisance causing no direct harm, will kill business in the city.

“If we can truck out of California, we can truck into California,” said the frustrated business owner.

The rule change would require the facilities to implement new best management practices within 90 days; and more complicated requirements affecting facility permits within 180 days. Failure to comply could lead to closure, something city officials want to avoid.

“We need to think of all those employees who could lose their jobs,” said Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra. “We want to keep the jobs here in Vernon.”

AQMD evaluated odor complaints in the communities surrounding Vernon over a ten-year period. According to the agency, about 35 complaints were received during that time, however, AQMD inspectors could not trace the odor to a specific facility because of their close proximity to one another.

Similarly, according to Grossberg, the city of Vernon says it receives less than half a dozen complaints a year.

The small number of complaints does not justify such an expensive change in the rules, businesses point out. However, AQMD staff believes the “number of complaints is not a good indicator of the impact of odors on area residents.”

AQMD believes the long history of rendering plants in Vernon has caused longtime residents to feel the odors are a part of the area landscape that they cannot be changed.

During past community meetings, staff heard from residents who filed complaints in the past but saw no change, “resulting in a general sense from community members that reporting odors does not yield results.”

While Vernon’s 7-person committee does include representatives of the rendering plants, other members of the committee say they are concerned the proposed rule change is a slippery slope that could eventually lead to further regulation in other areas, such as food processors and bakeries that also emit odors.

“Instead of working with the businesses to come up with a solution, AQMD is coming in with their own solution,” Grossberg told EGP.

“Vernon is here for a reason…so the smells and industry didn’t bother society,” said Corselli. “Now residential is encroaching on Vernon and attacking [the city] for what it has always been.”

Normas de AQMD Se Enfocan en Plantas de Procesamiento en Vernon

April 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

El conducir cerca de cualquiera de las cinco plantas de procesamiento en Vernon hace que las personas inmediatamente se cubran la nariz y suban sus ventanas para evitar el mal olor procedente de las instalaciones.

Vernon ha sido el hogar de los mataderos y fábricas de procesamiento como Farmer Johns durante años, pero mientras que la ciudad es principalmente industrial, está rodeada de vecindarios residenciales de las ciudades cercanas.

Los residentes se han quejado durante décadas sobre el hedor procedente de mataderos y plantas de reciclaje.

Read this article in English: AMQD Rule Targets Rendering Plants

Ahora, el Distrito de Administración de la Calidad del Aire (AQMD) está interviniendo y ha propuesto una nueva norma destinada a reducir las emisiones malolientes y un comité de Vernon ha escrito una carta oponiéndose al cambio.

La Propuesta de Norma (PR) 415, propuesta por primera vez en noviembre de 2014, requerirá que las nuevas y existentes instalaciones de procesamiento, que convierten los desechos animales en otros productos utilizables, hagan cambios en el equipo e implementen mejores prácticas de gestión existentes.

La norma propuesta, que se presentará ante la Junta de Gobierno de AQMD el 10 de julio fue creada como resultado de un problema identificado por el programa piloto Plan de Comunidades Limpias de Boyle Heights, que está formado por representantes de la oficina pública, las agencias ambientales, los sindicatos y la comunidad médica. El propósito del grupo es identificar los problemas de calidad del aire en Boyle Heights y las comunidades circunvecinas.

Representantes de oficiales electos, agencias del medio ambiente, sindicatos y la comunidad médica son parte del programa piloto.

“El consistente, terrible olor [de las plantas de procesamiento] ha cubierto el sureste y obligado a la gente mantenerse en el interior [de sus residencias] durante años”, dijo Mark López miembro de East Yard Communities.

Actualmente hay cinco plantas de reciclaje en toda la cuenca de Los Ángeles, todas las cuales están ubicadas en Vernon relativamente cerca unas de otras y junto a comunidades como Boyle Heights, el Este de Los Ángeles y Commerce.

Una de las plantas de procesamiento más famosa en la ciudad de Vernon es Farmer Johns, localizada en la calle Soto. (EGP foto por Nancy Martinez)

Una de las plantas de procesamiento más famosa en la ciudad de Vernon es Farmer John, localizada en la calle Soto. (EGP foto por Nancy Martinez)

Según AQMD, las emisiones de las plantas de procesamiento sin tratar pueden ser detectadas hasta 20 millas de distancia.

“Vernon fue creada como una ciudad industrial” antes de que las casas fueron construidas en las comunidades aledañas, explica Leonard Grossberg, director de control de salud y el medio ambiente de Vernon. “Ahora tenemos que ser capaces de vivir de una manera simbólica”, dijo explicando la decisión de intervenir en nombre de las empresas de la ciudad que serían impactadas.

La semana pasada, la Comisión Vernon Verde—establecida por la ciudad de Vernon para abordar las cuestiones de sostenibilidad y responsabilidad medioambiental—envió una carta a AQMD pidiendo que la agencia espere en el proceso de reglamentación por 180 días con el fin de responder a las preocupaciones de las empresas y la revisión de la información vital que siente que la agencia no consideró.

“Los negocios no oyeron de AQMD hasta después que tomaron efecto las reglas”, dice Grossberg. “Todo se hizo realidad sin la aportación de los negocios”.

Peter Corselli, uno de los miembros de la comisión le dijo a EGP que el reglamento es un paso en la dirección incorrecta.

“Esta norma se basa en nada más que una nariz completamente subjetiva”, dijo.

Aunque Corselli, vicepresidente de U.S. Growers Cold Storage no será afectada por la regla de representación, le dijo a EGP que él se preocupa por las regulaciones más estrictas que impulsarán a negocios fuera de la ciudad.

“En algún momento ellos [reguladores] van a empujar demasiado fuerte y las empresas van a hacer las maletas y a mudarse”, dijo.

Grossberg dijo a EGP que cree que el escrutinio adicional y las reglas más estrictas de calidad del aire por parte de AQMD es el resultado de la controversia en curso con Exide Technologies, la compañía de reciclaje de baterías establecida en Vernon, que fue ordenada a cerrar el mes pasado después de décadas de violaciónes de emisiones del aire.

“En este momento el público tiene el oído en AQMD”, dijo Grossberg.

“No me sorprendería que al ver a Exide como un triunfo ahora se están moviendo a la siguiente meta”, Corselli le dijo a EGP.

AQMD disputa esa queja agregando que el abordar los olores de plantas de procesamiento ha sido una prioridad para la comunidad.

“El problema de procesar los olores ha existido por décadas y no es un tema nuevo”, los funcionarios de AQMD le dijeron a EGP en un correo electrónico. “Los problemas en la instalación de Exide son completamente independientes y sin relación con esta regla”.

Según AQMD no ha confirmado si retrasará el proceso, pero si notó que “el personal esta considerando activamente las observaciones recibidas y hay una reunión publica pautada para el primero de mayo que se ha movido para julio.

Las cinco plantas de procesamiento están en conformidad con los cambios de las normas que pueden costar a cada compañía alrededor de $1 millón, según Grossberg, aunque las plantas están actualmente cumpliendo con los estándares de calidad.

Citando información del departamento de bomberos de la ciudad, la comisión expresó su preocupación de que los requisitos de construcción, como el recinto de todas las áreas de procesamiento, violarían los códigos de incendios de la ciudad.

“El Jefe de Bomberos de Vernon se opondría a encerrar las áreas de procesamiento, ya que haría el combatir fuegos de grasa/aceites más difícil”, dice la carta a AQMD.

Cualquier actualización del sitio también podría requerir que las plantas cierren con el fin de cumplir con los requisitos de construcción. Hay 800 puestos de trabajo de procesamiento en juego, según la comisión.

Farmer John es uno de los mayores empleadores de la ciudad, que emplea casi a 1.300. Corselli le dijo a EGP que regular aún más lo que es esencialmente una molestia que no causan daño directo, matará negocios en la ciudad.

“Si podemos moverlo fuera de California, podemos moverlo en California”, dijo, frustrado.

Las nuevas regulaciones requerirían que las instalaciones pongan en práctica nuevas y mejores prácticas de gestión dentro de los 90 días; con requisitos más complejos que afectan a los permisos de instalaciones dentro de los 180 días. El incumplimiento podría suponer el cierre, algo que los funcionarios de la ciudad quieren evitar.

“Tenemos que pensar en todos aquellos empleados que podrían perder sus trabajos”, dijo la concejal de la ciudad Melissa Ybarra. “Queremos mantener los trabajos aquí en Vernon”.

AQMD evaluó quejas por malos olores en las comunidades aledañas a Vernon durante un período de diez años. Según la agencia, se recibieron alrededor de 35 quejas durante ese tiempo, aunque los inspectores de AQMD no pudieron rastrear el olor en una instalación específica debido a su estrecha proximidad entre sí.

Del mismo modo, la ciudad de Vernon recibe menos de la mitad de una docena de quejas al año, dice Grossberg.

Las empresas han señalado que el escaso número de denuncias no justifica una nueva regla. Sin embargo, el personal de AQMD cree que el “número de quejas no es un buen indicador del impacto de los olores en los residentes de la zona”.

El personal de AQMD cree que la larga historia de las plantas de transformación en Vernon ha causado que residentes de largo tiempo sientan los olores como una parte del paisaje de la zona, que no pueden cambiar.

Durante las reuniones de la comunidad, el personal también ha aprendido que en el pasado, los residentes que hicieron denuncias de archivos, no vieron una reducción de olores, por lo que desalienta la presentación de nuevas denuncias “resultando en un sentido general de miembros de la comunidad de que denunciar los olores no da resultados”.

Mientras que el comité de 7 personas de Vernon sí incluye a representantes de las fábricas de procesamiento, otros miembros de la comisión dicen que les preocupa el cambio de reglas propuesto es una pendiente resbaladiza que eventualmente podría conducir a una mayor regulación en otras áreas, tales como procesadores de alimentos y panaderías que también emiten olores.

“En lugar de trabajar con las empresas para llegar a una solución, AQMD viene con su propia solución”, Grossberg le dijo a EGP.

“Vernon está aquí por una razón … por lo que los olores y la industria no se molestó en la sociedad”, dijo Corselli. “Ahora residencial está invadiendo Vernon y atacando a [la ciudad] por lo que siempre ha sido”.

—-

Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

Community Celebrates Exide Closure, But Doubts Remain

March 19, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

When news broke last summer that a grand jury was investigating Exide Technologies, community activists celebrated with cake and pizza at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.

Last weekend, following the announcement that the U.S. Attorney had reached an agreement to close down the plant permanently, they were back at the Church, this time celebrating with tequila and champagne.

Over 200 people were on hand to exalt the closure of the embattled acid-lead battery recycling plant in nearby Vernon.

Environmental activist joined together last week in East Los Angeles to celebrate the closure of the Exide plant in Vernon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Environmental activist joined together last week in East Los Angeles to celebrate the closure of the Exide plant in Vernon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The agreement calls for the immediate, permanent closure of Exide’s plant and for the company to spend millions to clean up the facility and nearby properties polluted by its toxic emissions. In exchange, the company and its executives will avoid criminal prosecution for its admitted decades long illegal handling of hazardous waste.

The mood Saturday was cheerful, food was plentiful and everyone, from the elected officials to the community activists and local residents, was smiling ear to ear on the “historic night.”

“Let’s continue the struggle, but tonight we celebrate,” Rev. Monsignor John Moretta told the crowd, drawing loud applause.

Last Thursday – the day the news broke – the regular bi-weekly meeting of environmental justice advocates East Yard Communities and Communities for a Better Environment to discuss the ongoing struggle with Exide, was replaced with music, hot dogs and dancing.

Modesta Carranza hosted the event in East Los Angeles and called the festivity a “celebration among neighbors,” with neighbors coming from Huntington Park, Maywood, Boyle Heights and beyond.

“In the long struggle for the civil rights of the Chicano/Latino community, it’s hard getting a victory,” so we have to celebrate them when they come, said Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council President Carlos Montes during the event.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, center, is applauded by Eastside residents during a special dinner at Ressurection Church Sunday night.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, center, is applauded by Eastside residents during a special dinner at Ressurection Church Sunday night. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Credit for the hard-fought victory belongs to the community, people at both events said.

“Money was against us but we did it with people power,” said 78-year-old Arturo Herrera. “We’ve been fighting for so long,” and now we know “what justice means.”

If you live in a low-income, immigrant community it’s harder to get government to listen to you, said East L.A. resident Victoria Zepeda.

“It takes many hands to make a masa (dough),” said Moretta before naming all the organizations that helped raise awareness of the environmental injustice.

Mark Lopez from East Yard Communities celebrated with his mother and daughter in East L.A. and reflected on how many generations were forced to endure Exide’s toxic emissions before action was finally taken.

“I never thought I would see the day,” echoed his mother Elsa Lopez, whose fight to close the plant goes back decades with the Mothers of East L.A.

Behind all the celebrations and feelings of victory, however, there remains nagging doubt, state regulators are up to the task of forcing Exide to live up to its agreement with federal authorities.

There is also anger that no one will be criminally prosecuted for releasing lead, arsenic and other toxins into the air and groundwater, exposing over 100,000 people to cancer causing levels of toxic chemicals.

It’s hard to forget how long it’s taken elected officials and regulators to act, said many of the people involved in the anti-Exide movement.

“Nobody believed how bad it was,” said Boyle Heights resident Teresa Marquez. They did not believe this could be going on in a state with so many environmental protection laws, she said. But Marquez never believed claims by Exide and state officials that the company was not a danger to the community.

“We knew Exide would lie, but DTSC and AQMD? We wanted to trust them,” she angrily recalls.

Terry Cano was not sure how to feel when she heard Exide was being forced to close because she never thought she would live to see the day.

“My first reaction was shock, I was happy,” said Cano. But “I really got angry and disappointed” when I heard the terms of the agreement, said the Boyle Heights resident.

“They literally got away with murder,” she said in disgust.

Mark Lopez shares the sentiment.  “When crime is committed in our neighborhoods we go to jail, sometimes we’re even deported, so for them to just pay a fine and leave is ridiculous,” said the clearly disappointed Lopez. “Our lives are not a parking ticket. We deserve better.”

California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control, DTSC, was not a party to the negotiations between Exide and federal authorities, but has been charged with making sure Exide’s complies with the terms of the deal.

The agency said the first phase of closure will take between 19 to 22 months and will include demolishing buildings “down to dirt.”

The second phase will involve cleaning beyond the facility and into the neighborhoods.

DTSC had earlier secured $14 million from Exide for the clean up of 216 potentially contaminated properties, although some of that amount still has to be approved by bankruptcy court later this month.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee claims the U.S. Attorney’s agreement will accelerate the payment schedule and ultimately “minimize the cost to the state.”

As a result, “[Exide] has a much greater incentive to work with us,” she said.

According to Lee, DTSC had already started the process to deny Exide’s application for a permanent permit — the company had been allowed to operate with a temporary one for more than three decades — when federal authorities struck their deal.

“[Exide] knew we were going to deny their permit and that they were going to be shut down irrespective of what the USAO was going to do,” Lee said.

Herrera says he was surprised that the U.S. Attorney’s office got involved.

“The [federal government] and local politicians really came through for our community,” he said. “The state never stuck up for us.”

Residents from Boyle Heights to Maywood celebrated the closure of the Exide plant in Vernon.    (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Residents from Boyle Heights to Maywood celebrated the closure of the Exide plant in Vernon. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Many like Herrera are angry DTSC did not act sooner. They are also angry Gov. Jerry Brown last year vetoed Sen. Kevin de Leon’s bill to create stricter oversight of state agencies like DTSC.

“Yes Exide is down, but DTSC is now responsible for the mess they allowed here in our communities,” said Lopez.

“The state of California needs reform and laws with teeth that will stick,” Marquez said.

Leading environmental groups are calling for an overhaul of the state’s regulatory agencies, with some going so far as to demand DTSC be shut down until it can be reorganized.

“I hope it’s legit,” said Rhianna Morales bluntly about the closure. “I hope [Exide] doesn’t come back with something.”

Lee, who has only been in her position for three months and inherited the mess from her predecessors, defends the agency against accusations it has repeatedly failed to take decisive action against Exide. She points out the agency has in recent years collected millions of dollars in fines from Exide, and that’s it’s effort to close the plant was thwarted by the courts.

“I have a lot of hope that Barbara [Lee] will turn the agency around,” says Herrera, but “to us, they are still the same agency.

Elsa Lopez thinks Exide “got off easy” and “should be charged with murder.”

Marquez told EGP, “Somebody has to get fired.”

Montes worries Exide will just move elsewhere and contaminate another community.

“[Exide’s] priority isn’t cleaning up, its making a profit,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney said its deal with Exide would allow the company to remain financially solvent so it can pay to clean up the damage it has caused. If they don’t, they will be criminally prosecuted.

For now, Boyle Heights resident Ethel Lopez, 60, is relieved that she will be able to breath fresh, clean air.

“We are getting rid of a polluter,” said Lopez. “As long as they are out, we should be fine.”

Many residents told EGP they feel they have helped secure a clean, safe environment for future generations.

“I’m very happy that this isn’t going to have to be my daughter’s fight,” Mark Lopez said.

“The next step is to make sure they clean up the site at Exide’s expense not at the cost of the community,” said Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias. “We need to hold these agencies accountable so this doesn’t happen again.”

“You can watch us going forward, we will clean this up,” promised Lee.

Exide to Close, Now What?

March 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The U.S. Attorney’s announcement March 12 that it has reached an agreement with Exide Technologies to close its Vernon plant is certainly good news given the facility’s troubling history of toxic chemical emission and hazardous waste violations.

The acid-lead battery recycler has been operating for nearly three decades under a temporary permit, which gives new meaning to “temporary” here in Los Angeles County.

More than any other factor, we believe it was the unrelenting demonstrations and pressure from the community that is ultimately responsible for the U.S. Attorney’s decision to investigate and pursue charges against the company.

We salute the residents in Boyle Heights, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, and other neighborhoods for bringing this polluter its day of reckoning.

Exide demonstrated little to no respect for the residents who live near its plant or care about the trail of contamination it has left in our air, water and land.

Nor did the company care that it exposed thousands of residents to unsafe levels of cancer causing chemicals.

But state regulators are also deserving of blame in this environmental debacle.

They allowed Exide to stay in operation even after the California Department of Toxic Substance Control cited the company repeatedly for its unsafe emission levels of lead and other contaminants, and its unsafe handling of hazardous waste.

Exide entered into an agreement in the fall of 2014 with state regulators to set aside $38.6 million for the environmental clean up of the recycling facility should it close down due to its inability to operate the facility in a safe manner.

But it wasn’t until a criminal investigation was launched by federal authorities — which included the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation — that Exide is finally being held responsible for what the company admits is its years of illegal handling of hazardous waste.

Unfortunately, the agreement does not send anyone to jail and gross polluters, like criminal bankers and stock manipulators, will escape incarceration.

And while local residents and environmental activists are cheering news that the Vernon battery recycling plant will not only be permanently closed but demolished, they lack faith in state regulators to ensure Exide lives up to the terms of its agreement with federal authorities,

Their doubts are not unreasonable, given the decades of inaction by state agencies.

Even Gov. Brown, California’s sometimes-environmental hero, vetoed a law that would have required stricter oversight of regulatory agencies.

It’s long past time for State Legislators to pass legislation –and the governor to sign – that will bring greater oversight of DTSC, AQMD, and to set tighter standards for closing down toxic polluters.

Southeast Cities Team Up For Bike Access

March 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Four southeast cities are joining forces to encourage residents to contribute ideas to the development of a master bike plan for their region.

But rather than holding the usual round of in-door meetings, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy and Vernon are holding free, informal bike rides in April and May to gather feedback from area residents on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.

The cities have some of the most heavily traveled roadways in the region and hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the number of cars on local streets and increasing the number of people riding bicycles and walking, goals set forth in the Active Transportation Program (ATP).

Bell Gardens is spearheading the initiative that will also look at connecting bike and pedestrian routes between the cities.

Each ride will be about six-miles long with stops along the way to allow for discussion and refreshments.

Participating cyclists are required to wear a helmet.

Data collected during the rides will be used by the cities to apply for ATP grants to pay for enhanced safety measures in their respective cities.

The first of the three information gathering cycling events was held last week in Cudahy and focused on how to improve access from the southeast communities to the Los Angeles River and Downtown Los Angeles.

The next bike rides will be held:

—Thursday, Apr. 9: Riders will meet at Bell Gardens High School (6119 Agra Street) at 1p.m. The topic will be: “How can walking and biking support the bigger goal of creating healthier, safer and more livable southern region?

—Saturday, May 23; Riders will meet at John Anson Ford Park (8000 Park Lane) in Bell Gardens at 10a.m. Topic:  “How can walking and biking connect the people and places that make our neighborhoods unique?”

For more information, contact Bell Gardens Director of Public Works Chau Vu at (562) 334-1790.

School Expands Horizon for Children of Vernon Workers

February 26, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Tucked in the middle of all the factories, warehouses and rendering plants in Vernon is an elementary school with more students than there are residents in the city.

Most of the students who attend Vernon City Elementary are the children of workers at local businesses who travel to the city from outlying cities and nearby neighborhoods. For many of the workers, time and money are often in short supply.

As parents, they find comfort knowing their child is close by in case of an emergency and that the school offers after-school programs they would be hard pressed to enroll them in closer to home.

Brian Tzep, 9, practices signing “I love you” with fellow Woodcraft Ranger Ashey Castillo, 8, Monday during after-school American Sign Language class. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Brian Tzep, 9, practices signing “I love you” with fellow Woodcraft Ranger Ashey Castillo, 8, Monday during after-school American Sign Language class. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A large number of Vernon Elementary students stay on campus after the 2:30 p.m. school bell rings to take part in Woodcraft Rangers after-school program, where they spend the afternoon learning about robotics, gardening and even American Sign Language.

For the last 20 years, Woodcraft Rangers – an after-school program designed for low-income neighborhoods that offer limited opportunities to its youth – has allowed kindergarten through sixth grade students at Vernon Elementary to participate in programs that would otherwise be out of their reach.

Unlike many other afterschool programs that only offer homework help, arts and crafts and play time, students in Woodcraft Rangers also participate in clubs organized around specific themes, such as dance, gardening, American Sign Language and robotics. They can also participate in structured sports programs like soccer and basketball.

“A lot of these kids can’t do the extra curricular activities because parents don’t have the time,” and Woodcraft Rangers fill that void, explains Principal Fabiola Hernandez.

That was the case for nine-year old Dulce Lupita Camarena who wanted to take dance classes and play a sport. Her mother Guadalupe Herrera said her work schedule and the expense would have made it impossible if it were not for the after-school program.

The help Herrera’s daughter gets with her homework is also a big deal for the Mexican-born mother, whose grasp of English is limited and who like many other immigrant parents has trouble reading and understanding homework assignments.

Students in the program can stay at the school until 6 p.m., an added blessing to working parents who don’t have anyone to pick up or care for their child when school lets out.

It’s a “big help,” says Herrera who lives in Compton and doesn’t end her workday at a local factory until 4:30 p.m. It also helps her very tight budget, saving about $100 week in added childcare costs which she must already pay for her youngest child.

Like most children at Vernon Elementary, Dulce is able to attend the small Los Angeles Unified District school on permit because her mother works in the city. Students travel to the school from Downey, Lynwood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Bell, Bell Gardens, Montebello, Los Angeles and beyond.

“If we didn’t have this program I don’t think we would have that many children enrolled in this school,” said Principal Hernandez, adding that when most parents inquire about the school they want to know if there is after-hours childcare.

It also helps that all activities, clubs, fieldtrips, supplies and uniforms are free.

Things that children from more affluent backgrounds neighborhoods might take for granted are a very big deal for Woodcraft Rangers participants like Roberto Carlos of Long Beach, who was thrilled the first time he saw his name printed on his basketball jersey.

The 11-year old also learned to build and program a small robot during the robotics club, something he says he never thought he would be able to do.

“It was a new experience,” he said. “I learned a lot.”

Clubs like robotics and gardening are an example of STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) infused into the curriculum of Woodcraft Rangers.

In the gardening club, students have grown beans, cilantro, kale, onions, potato, lettuce and corn in the school’s first community garden. They are allowed to take some of the vegetables home.

The school’s principal told EGP the after-school experience has other added benefits and “ has helped shy students excel beyond the classroom.”

“I can introduce myself” in sign language, said Analy Carrillo proudly, emphasizing the point.

Vernon City Elementary students rehearse their dance recital during the Woodcraft Rangers afterschool program Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Vernon City Elementary students rehearse their dance recital during the Woodcraft Rangers afterschool program Monday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

The 10-year old said she didn’t know what sign language was before taking the class but she has quickly picked it up and has even performed Christmas carols and participated in a “Frozen” themed recital, all in sign language.

“Anything you teach to younger kids they are going to pick up fast, so long as we make it fun,” emphasized American Sign Language instructor Marla Vargas.

As part of Woodcraft’s dance club, Dulce has learned salsa, cumbia, break-dance and African-inspired routines. The dance team recently won first place in a local dance competition and now the young dancer is considering a career in the arts.

“I hope we win again,” she said enthusiastically.

“It motivates them and motivates us as parents to work harder,” said her mother, reflecting on the competitions and parades her daughters have been a part of because of the program.

Woodcraft Ranger site coordinator Jerry Garcia says the dance recitals, sports tournaments and other presentations have also helped “build a community in Vernon,” bringing residents from all over the region to the resident-poor city.

“This is the heart of the community,” he said.

Vernon Opens Lottery for New Affordable Housing

February 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Employers in the city of Vernon are encouraging their workers to apply for a chance to make the industrial city their home, by applying for one of the soon to open new affordable housing units being built in the city.

While as many as 55,000 workers commute to Vernon every day from cities as close as Maywood to more distant locations throughout L.A. County, only about 100 or so people can currently call themselves residents. But that will change in a few months when the city doubles its population with the opening of a new housing complex in late April or May.

Businesses have been making a push to get their employees to apply, but applications are open to anyone who meets the income qualifications for the Vernon Village Park project, located at 4675 East 52nd Dr., near the city’s southeast border with Maywood.

The deadline to apply for one of the 45-units — 9 one-bedroom apartments, 22 two-bedroom units and 14 three-bedroom units — is 6 p.m., Friday, Feb. 27.  A lottery is scheduled for Tuesday, March 3 at 6p.m at City Hall.

Construction of the Vernon Village Park housing project continues on the 4600 block of 52nd Drive.   (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Construction of the Vernon Village Park housing project continues on the 4600 block of 52nd Drive. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Marisa Olguin of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce encouraged the city’s 1,800 companies to share the information with their employees.

“Who wouldn’t want to live close to work,” said Olguin in a city newsletter. “I can easily imagine there would be many Vernon workers who will find Vernon Village Park an attractive option to their present housing situation.”

Olguin added that the move would relieve the stress for commuters who would go from gridlocked freeways to a 10-minute commute.

Melissa Hansen of Hansen Cold Storage Construction, said the Vernon company made sure they put that information on display for their employees when they heard about the project.

Councilmember-elect Melissa Ybarra told EGP she wants to make sure everyone is encouraged to apply.

“Remember, we want to be transparent and increase that [voter] population,” she said. “If not, it will eliminate what we fought for,” she said, referring to city near disincorporation in 2011.

United Steel Fence Company co-owner Alma Arredondo, however, said she did not think there was a need to encourage their employees to apply for the housing, since many of their workers already have homes.

“They love coming here to work, but they love where they live,” she said.

Luis Saavedra is the general manager for Tapatio Foods. He told EGP most of their employees are already local and live in adjacent cities such as Maywood.

According to a survey conducted by the chamber 80 percent of the city’s 55,000 employees live within 5 miles of their job.

Meta Housing Corporation is building and will operate the apartment complex through Solari Enterprise Inc. The city agreed to lease the two-acre property to the developer for $1 a year for 65 years.

The gated community will be non-smoking and have amenities such as onsite management, community building, a laundry room, computer lab, tot lot and onsite parking.

To qualify, applicants must meet household gross annual income restrictions based on the number of occupants.

Gross annual incomes may not exceed $34,260 for a one-person household; $39,120 for a two-persons; $44,040 for a three-persons; $48,900 four-persons; $52,860 for a five people and $56,760 for a six-person household.

Rent is expected to range from $687 for a one-bedroom to $1,272 for a three-bedroom. Section 8 will be accepted.

The project has been in the works since 2013, in response to criticism that Vernon lacked a true electorate and was prone to corruption. The new residents will also help double the city’s voting population. During Tuesday’s election only 26 of the city’s 63 registered voters submitted their mail-in-ballot, according to preliminary results.

For application information, call (800) 801-8440 ext. 7203.

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