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EXIDE VERNON BREAKING NEWS: Exide begins removing lead-tainted soil from homes near Vernon smelter; State expands soil testing for lead from Exide plant to at least 144 more homes


Exide to remove lead-polluted soil from 2 homes north of its Vernon plant

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On Monday, excavation crews paid for by Exide Technologies began digging up polluted soil around homes near the lead-battery recycling facility.

The two homes are north of the facility near the border of Boyle Heights and East LA. The Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the work, didn’t disclose the addresses, citing the privacy of the residents.

But orange plastic traffic cones, trucks, and heavy construction equipment were visible Monday around the intersection of Olympic and La Puerta Street. A man named Sal Chavez came out on the porch of a house where crews were trying to squeeze large trucks into a driveway.
Chavez says he has lived at his house in Boyle Heights for 47 years. Pollution surrounds his neighborhood, he said. “We talk about it, the neighbors, you know, but sometimes we can’t do anything about it because nobody listened to us,” Chavez said.
About the cleanup mandated by the DTSC at his residence, he said, “This is a nice program.” Chavez added that some of his neighbors were interested in getting the cleanup he’s getting. In addition to the soil removal, DTSC officials say remediation crews will clean the inside of Chavez’s house too.
Exide and its predecessors have recycled lead batteries at 2700 Indiana Avenue in Vernon for decades. In recent years, state and federal regulators have targeted the company for its emissions, containing toxic lead and arsenic that sometimes exceeds standards.
Last spring, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found arsenic pollution from the facility increased the cancer risk for more than 100-thousand people in the area. And soil testing at areas north and south of the company found higher than expected levels of lead in the spring.
During that testing, conducted in November of last year, samples from two homes found lead in soil at 400 parts per million, the level at which the federal government triggers remedial action. As a result, the DTSC has ordered Exide to remove the top 18 inches of soil from the private properties, and replace it with clean fill soil.
Separately, the company must continue testing at 37 more homes and two schools near the facility. The company and regulators are still negotiating over how to conduct that next stage of cleanup and testing.
At issue is what the company must do at homes where soil samples revealed lead in amounts less than 400 parts per million, but above 80 parts per million, which is a level that California regulators consider protective of human health.
Environmental activists, some from East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, gathered at a school near the cleanup sites to voice concerns about the slow pace of investigation and remediation.
“Families around here now have been told that the children are not to play in the dirt, pregnant women should not touch the dirt, if you have fruit or vegetables they should not touch the dirt,” said Monsignor John Moretta, who leads Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights. “And we’ve been living like that for over a year.”
They also criticized the completeness of the cleanup. “You know we really have no way of knowing, until that additional sampling is done, whether these are the two worst” polluted homes, said the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Ramiya Sivasubramaniam, who pointed out that discrete sampling was conducted at a fraction of the homes.
“Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t.” The DTSC’s Rizgar Ghazi stressed that investigatory work is not complete. Ghazi said that further exploratory testing begins Tuesday and will continue for about 60 days, covering about 2 square miles north and south of Exide’s Vernon plant. It’ll take that long, Ghazi says, because “Physically – literally we have to go knock door to door to get permission from the property owners,” he said. “Some property owners are happy to do that. Some property owners won’t even answer the door.”
Exide has said that no tests directly and exclusively link its operations to the lead pollution. In a written statement, the company said that it would comply with all orders and mandates.
Exide’s dispute with air regulators continues. Last week, the South Coast AQMD added more allegations of pollution violations to a $40 million lawsuit against Exide in Los Angeles Superior Court. And last month, a hearing board for the air district ordered the company to take additional pollution control measures before it could reopen.
Spokesmen for the company were unable to comment on the lawsuit. However, in a recent written statement, Thomas Strang, a vice president of environment health & safety for the company, stressed that “Exide is committed to meeting the new air quality standards.”
This story has been updated.


California expands lead soil testing area near Exide plant in Vernon

California regulators expanded the lead soil testing area near the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon
At least 144 more homes will be tested for lead contamination near Exide battery recycling plant

State regulators have greatly expanded the area of homes, schools and parks that will be tested for lead-tainted soil near a troubled battery recycling plant in Vernon.

California toxic waste regulators blame air pollution from the Exide Technologies plant for the elevated levels of lead detected last fall at 39 homes and a preschool in Maywood and Boyle Heights, prompting officials to issue health warnings for pregnant women and children, and require additional testing. Workers began removing contaminated soil from two homes in Boyle Heights near the facility Monday.

The expanded test area will include at least 144 homes in a two-square mile area of southeast Los Angeles County.

The new tests ordered by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control will be conducted over the next two months in neighborhoods north and south of the Exide plant, one of only two lead acid battery smelters west of the Rocky Mountains.

State officials suspect the lead found at nearby homes was carried airborne and deposited over many years.

The facility, about five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, opened in 1922 and was taken over by Exide in 2000. The plant is shut temporarily under an agreement with air quality regulators. It has been a source of community outrage since a health study last year found its arsenic emissions posed an elevated cancer risk to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Exide has been cited repeatedly by air quality officials in recent years, mostly for emitting too much lead.

The neighborhoods being tested extend from Maywood and Boyle Heights into Huntington Park and unincorporated parts of East Los Angeles. Schools and play areas at public parks will also be sampled.

More than 60,000 people live in the area and about 98% of them are Hispanic, according to a Times analysis of 2010 Census data. About 8,000 children age 6 and younger live in the those areas, The Times analysis found.

Lead poses a health risk to young children because they can play in the dirt, and ingest tainted dust that can lead to learning disabilities.

Officials have stressed the levels found in the soil do not pose an acute risk. Since the contamination was discovered last fall, however, health officials have instructed residents to keep away from soil, wash their hands after touching it and grow vegetables only in raised beds.

But community activists and environmental groups say the extent of the soil contamination remains unknown because not enough homes have been tested.

At a news conference Monday in Boyle Heights, they accused Exide and the toxics department of being slow to act. They demanded swift replacement of soil at all properties where lead exceeds 80 parts per million, the level at which California recommends further health screenings.

“We need full cleanup to make sure that people feel safe in their homes, in their schools and in their communities,” said Ramya Sivasubramanian, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Exide has disputed the state’s requirements and is arguing it should be responsible only for soil above 400 parts per million, the threshold used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” said Thomas Strang, Exide’s vice president for environmental health and safety. He blamed much of the contamination on other sources, including lead-based paint used in older homes, leaded gasoline that was phased out decades ago and other smelters and steel mills that have operated in the heavily industrial city of Vernon.

“We are not claiming responsibility for all the lead in L.A.,” he said. “There’s too many other contributing factors.”

Under orders from state regulators, contractors hired by Exide on Monday began a weeklong project to excavate, haul away and replace up to 18 inches of soil from the front and back yards of two Boyle Heights homes where the highest concentrations were found. One home had samples more than 580 parts per million, while the other was more than 450 parts per million.

Salvador Chavez, 84, who lives in one of the two houses with his daughter and her adult children, watched Monday as crews arrived to begin digging up his yard with small excavators, wheelbarrows and shovels.

“I hope this is just the beginning and that they continue cleaning up all the contamination, wherever they find it,” the retired steel construction worker said in Spanish.

The Vernon plant, which can process about 25,000 automotive batteries a day, suspended operations in March because it could not meet tough new rules adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Under a deal reached last month with the air district, the company agreed to keep the facility closed until it installs new pollution controls.

The state toxics department denied a public records request from The Times to pinpoint sampling locations of the 39 homes originally tested, saying a release would violate the privacy of homeowners.

Twitter: @tonybarboza

Times staff writer Jon Schleuss and Times Data Analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.



Removal Begins of Lead-Contaminated Soil From Homes Near Exide Plant

The Exide plant in Vernon suspended operations in March when it was unable to meet anti-pollution measures imposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Residents living near a now-closed Exide battery plant are concerned after seeing men in protective gear digging up soil with high levels of lead near neighboring homes. Patrick Healy reports for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. from Boyle Heights
Monday, Aug. 11, 2014.

Topsoil is being removed to a depth of 18 inches from the yard of a Boyle Heights home where testing previously confirmed the presence of lead contamination suspected of coming from a currently closed battery recycling plant, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Work will also begin soon at another residential location where lead concentrations in excess of 400 parts per million were also found in soil samples, DTSC head of permitting Rizgar Ghazi said.

The contaminated soil will be to taken to an Arizona landfill authorized to receive hazardous waste, Ghazi said.  New soil will be brought to the properties and landscaping will be restored, the state pledged. Afterwards, the interiors of the homes are to be cleaned and the air passed through HEPA filters.
Last year, the state ordered operators of the Exide recycling plant in Vernon to conduct testing in neighborhoods north and south of the plant for environmental contamination by lead, arsenic, and other substances.  A report released in March disclosed that concentrations of lead in excess of 80 parts per million (ppm) were found in the yards of 39 homes.
Eighty ppm is deemed a “screening” threshhold; California Public Health considers concentrations in excess of 400 ppm to be potentially harmful, especially to young children whose brain development can be impaired by lead poisoning.
Residents, environmental activists, and a number of Los Angeles County officials contend the plant, which dates to the 1920’s, has posed a threat to public health.
Even as the cleanup proceeds for the two homes with the highest levels, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has directed Exide to prepare a plan for removing contaminated soil at the 37 other locations with lead above the screening level.
Exide maintains there is no evidence of a direct link between its plant and the lead found in the yards, but pledges continued cooperation with government regulators.  It is well-documented that two now-forbidden uses of lead as a chemical additive–in gasoline and in paint–released lead into urban environments over a period of decades.
In the south end of Boyle Heights and on the other side of the plant in Maywood, there may be additional yards with elevated levels of lead yet to be identified, Ghazi acknowledged.  Some residents and property owners have declined the offer to have their soil tested.
Seeing the removal operation beginning Monday on La Puerta Street, some neighbors were giving new consideration to having their yards tested.
“My sister’s concern is she has health problems,” said Jimmy Salazar, who lives in the back house of the property he shares with her on La Puerta.
Mayra Lopez, a gardner’s daughter, is concerned that her father may be exposed to elevated lead levels
every day he works on La Puerta, and expressed hope property owners will accept the testing offer.
Monday, Ghazi and other DTSC staffers went door-to-door meeting with residents.
Los Angeles County officials, including Supervisor Gloria Molina, previously questioned the vigilence of DTSC in dealing with Exide. Ghazi said DTSC is taking steps to make sure Exide “is held responsible.”
Under a separate outreach launched last spring by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, residents can get free screening to check for elevated levels of lead in the bloodstream.
The Exide plant in Vernon suspended operations in March when it was unable to meet anti-pollution measures imposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Last month, its board said that the plant cannot reopen unless there was “substantial improvements to its air pollution control system.” It would then need to pass “comprehensive emission tests.”

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