QUEMETCO/CITY OF INDUSTRY BREAKING NEWS: Did City of Industry landscaping activities interfere with testing of soil for lead near Quemetco smelter?
While state environmental officials were testing soil around the Quemetco plant in the City of Industry for arsenic and lead, crews with the city were busy cementing sidewalks and landcaping street parkways and other public spaces in the area.
That’s leading some residents to question the integrity of the tests.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) ordered Quemetco in November 2015to test the soil around its battery-recycling plant and lead smelter for lead and arsentic contamination. The order followed the start of a massive clean-up around the battery-recycling plant in Vernon owned by Exide Technologies that had spewed lead and other dangerous chemicals over as many as 10,000 homes in the city for decades.
Testers with WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, the contractor hired by Quemetco to perform the tests under DTSC supervision, started their work in early July. An update on the investigation showed that one third of the homes tested in the area had lead above safe levels, but none would be required to be cleaned up immediately. And testers still weren’t sure if the lead came from Quemetco.
Work by city crews was going on at the same time as the contamination tests.
Three residents who live near the plant at 720 S. 7th Ave. asked the City Council Thursday about the landscaping activity.
“We saw new landscaping taking place, even soil being removed,” said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez, president of the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights. “Why is landscaping being done during official testing?”
The city admitted work had been done in the area.
In March, city crews set nearly 300 yards of new sidewalk on Salt Lake Avenue directly in front of the plant, said Alex Gonzalez, City of Industry director of development services and administration.
Gonzalez said landscaping work was also done on Clark Avenue a few blocks away from the plant the same month.
He wasn’t sure whether work was done on Bonelli Street, another street directly across from the plant, but said he’ll investigate. Gonzales also said he would check where soils were removed and where the possibly contaminated samples were taken.
Mayor Mark Radecki instructed Gonzalez to do a better job coordinating city landscaping and street maintenance during the DTSC investigation.
“Since DTSC has an open investigation, the city doesn’t want to take any steps to interfere in that investigation,” Gonzalez said after the meeting.
“This is really reflecting badly on the City of Industry,” said Duncan McKee, a member of the citizen group. He called the DTSC testing “a farce.”
Jose Diaz, the DTSC project manager, said the new sidewalks were set before testers could sample the streets and parkways. He said the mixing of soils on other streets could play a role in the testing.
DTSC officials did not say whether the city work affected their sampling protocol and would not comment further on the matter.
About three months after they started, the agency has tested the soils of streets, parkways, water channels and homes within a one-quarter mile radius of Quemetco. Diaz said in July that 11 of the 200 industrial and commercial areas closest to the battery recycling plant were deemed hazardous and needed to be cleaned and possibly paved over.
The department reported testing 70 residential properties as of Thursday. Of the samples taken from the 70 homes, two-thirds were under the 80 parts per million (ppm), the action level for lead contamination. About one-third tested above 80 ppm, Diaz told the City Council in the investigation update.
A few of the homes where higher levels of lead were found reached 500 ppm, Diaz said. None were required to have immediate cleanup.
But any level above 80 ppm may trigger a health risk analysis for exposure to lead, he said.
State, county and federal environmental agencies say readings of 400 ppm in soil should trigger precautions to those living there, including extra hand washing and washing of home-grown fruits and vegetables, Diaz said.
Children are the most vulnerable for lead exposure, according to the department. Years of lead exposure — through the skin, lungs or by ingestion — can damage a child’s nervous system, causing learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Lead also has caused tumors in laboratory animals and is listed as a probable carcinogen, according to the DTSC.
Dot Lofstrom, a senior engineering geologist at DTSC, downplayed the dangers.
“We don’t want people unnecessarily alarmed,” she told the City Council. “We are encouraged by the early results.”
A car battery contains about 750,000 ppm of lead, she said, emphasizing the comparatively low levels found in the most recent samples.
Councilman Newell Ruggles asked if any resident of Hacienda Heights, City of Industry or North Whittier were in imminent danger of getting sick. Lofstrom responded that none were. She said health science emphasizes that exposure has to happen over many years for there to be a danger from that level of lead.
DTSC officials said more tests were required to determine if the lead in the soil samples came from Quemetco. They’re looking at the chemical properties of the lead found in the soil to try to match it to any lead coming from the plant.
Diaz said the highest levels found in residential samples were near the drip lines of the homes, hinting that the lead was from the homeowners’ own roofs.
“All have asphalt shingles, most do not have gutters,” Diaz said.
He said the DTSC may finish soil testing by the end of September.