EXIDE VERNON BREAKING NEWS: Residents express ire about decades of irresponsible oversight from municipal to federal level of violation-ridden Exide lead smelter and slow pace and underestimated scope of cleanup
Furious residents reacted with deep skepticism Thursday as California environmental regulators revealed a plan to use $7 million in state money to quickly expand testing and cleanup of lead-contaminated properties surrounding a closed battery recycling plant in Vernon.
California Department of Toxic Substances Control officials faced a barrage of questions at a public meeting in Huntington Park following news last week that soil testing shows air pollution from the Exide Technologies facility deposited toxic lead dust across a wider area of southeast L.A. County than previously estimated, possibly fouling as many as 10,000 homes up to 1.7 miles away.
Department Director Barbara Lee pledged to use $3 million of the new money to begin cleaning the most contaminated properties: those already tested that have lead concentrations above 1,000 parts per million. California recommends further health screenings when lead exceeds 80 parts per million.
Lee said the department would use an additional $3 million of the funds to develop and carry out a new round of soil testing at more homes in Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce and other communities where homes may have been contaminated by the facility’s lead emissions.
“We are going to act as quickly as possible,” Lee said.
But the agency’s plan did not satisfy many residents at the hearing.
“Why am I hearing about a plan to make another plan?” said Terry Gonzalez-Cano, whose Boyle Heights home was tested last year. She said the tests of her yard detected lead levels as high as 1,550 parts per million and that she was still waiting for it to be cleaned up.
Also on Thursday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents communities around the Exide Technologies plant, called on Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint an independent expert to oversee the cleanup and a commission to investigate the ordeal.
“We can’t afford to wait another week, two weeks,” Solis said in an interview. “We need immediate action.”
The toxic control agency “has really done nothing to stop or clean up the mess,” said Jose Antonio Gutierrez, a Huntington Park resident who grew up near the plant in Vernon and said he suffers many health problems from lifelong exposure to its lead emissions. “When will your agency act rather than talk?”
California officials allowed the battery recycler to operate for 33 years with only a temporary permit, even as it racked up dozens of violations for releasing pollution into the air and water, sparking fierce protest from community groups and lawmakers.
In March, Exide struck a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office to shut down the lead-acid battery smelter, which had been in operation since 1922. To avoid criminal charges, the Georgia-based company agreed to spend $50 million to clean and demolish the plant and to remove lead from the soil of surrounding homes.
Lead is a powerful poison that can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and diminished IQs in children, who can ingest the dust when they play in the dirt. Removing the metal from thousands of homes would become the largest cleanup of its kind in California and could ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
As residents wait for further testing and cleanup, state officials advised them to take precautions, including wiping off shoes, covering bare soil with landscaping and washing children’s hands after they play outside.
Gina Solomon, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy secretary for science and health, told residents the levels of lead in the soil would not make anyone sick but could cause an increase in blood lead levels that could cause learning deficiencies. She urged residents to participate in a free blood lead screening program.
Exide has said its contributions to lead in the soil were small relative to other sources, such as lead-based paint in older homes, and that contamination from the plant is limited to nearby industrial zones.
CBS LOS ANGELES (Exclusive)
Head Of Agency Charged With Cleaning Up Homes Contaminated By Exide Battery PlantÂ Talks
When will the clean up begin? The community is frankly, fed up, out of patience and at the boiling point.
The head of the agency tasked with the clean up effort is speaking on television for the first time.
Barbara Lee also spoke with CBS2â€™s Randy Paige.
Itâ€™s a story that is Only On 2.
Toxic Substances Control Director Lee met with members of various communities that surround the battery plant.
Many of the residents, said Paige, told heartbreaking stories about the illness they attribute to living near the plant.
Anthony Guiterrez, who grew up just a few blocks from Exide, said he was suffering from brain cancer.
â€œAt times I feel that Iâ€™m a burden to my family, and I tell them I am it would be easier for them if I wasnâ€™t alive but my family loves me to death and encourages me,â€ Guiterrez says.
Lee told the group she found an additional $7 million â€” to be borrowed from next yearâ€™s budget â€” that will allow the group to get started in homes already tested. The money will also allow them to begin testing in 10,000 other homes in the contaminated area.
â€œWeâ€™re hoping that we have a plan in place and have crews working in the next couple of months,â€ Lee said.
She understands the frustration with delays.
â€œWe expect to be starting on the homes priority 1 â€” under those same criteria,â€ she added. She said it would take definitely more than days or weeks to get the funding in place.
â€œAt the end of the day the question, fundamental question, is whereâ€™s the money to complete the clean up?,â€ says Angelo Bellomeo, LA County Director of Environmental Health.
Paige reported that $7 million is a good start but clean up for each home is estimated at about $40,000 per house â€” and with 5-10,000 homes to clean and fix, the money required will reach between $200-400 million â€” begging the question, where will the rest of that money come from? And, how soon can the job begin and how long before itâ€™s finished.