EXIDE VERNON: Los Angeles Mayor, officials reach out to neighbors of Exide lead smelter concerned about lead contamination
At each stop, residents were urged to sign agreements allowing state regulatory officials formal permission to test their yards and gardens for lead, arsenic and other toxins emitted into the air by the Exide Technologies facility in Vernon. Lead dust, a toxic metal, can cause developmental problems — even at low levels — with children and pregnant women at greatest risk.
No one turned down the requests in the affected communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Bell, Huntington Park and Maywood, which had been pushing regulators for years to deal with pollution from the plant, which was processing 11 million used batteries a year when it closed last March.
Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown called on the state to spend $177 million to expedite the testing and cleanup of an estimated 10,000 homes within 1.7 miles of the Exide facility and to remove lead from about 2,500 homes with elevated levels of the potent neurotoxin. It is one of the largest state cleanup efforts ever undertaken.
Brown’s proposal was belated but welcomed in working-class Latino communities surrounding the plant, which had come to believe that state regulators had responded more aggressively to address the health affects of the natural gas leak near the wealthy northern San Fernando Valley foothill community of Porter Ranch.
Msgr. John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church was only half-kidding Saturday when he told a crowd of supporters at the recreational center, “We were going to petition the city to change the name of this community to Boyle Heights Ranch. But that won’t be necessary anymore.”
A few yards away, residents were lining up to have their blood tested for lead poisoning by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead, and children can suffer learning disabilities even with limited exposure. Arsenic, a carcinogen, can cause nausea, decreased blood-cell production and abnormal heart rhythm.
The Legislature this year is expected to approve the $176 million requested by Brown, which would be a supplement to this year’s budget and lent to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control from the state’s general fund. Initial cleanup costs incurred by the state would be recovered later from Exide, officials said.
Exide has been the focus of intense scrutiny since 2013 when a health risk assessment by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that the plant was posing an elevated cancer risk to more than 100,000 people living in southeast county communities because of arsenic emissions.
The plant, which opened in 1922 and was taken over by Exide in 2000, has been cited several times in recent years, often for exceeding permissible levels of lead.
Exide, which had been operating for decades without a full permit as required by the 1976 federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, closed down the plant last year under an agreement with federal prosecutors.
To avoid criminal charges, the company agreed to be responsible for the full cost of cleaning up the lead contamination.
In the meantime, contract testing crews will be taking soil samples in the front and backyards of residents who sign access agreements. If cleanup is needed, contaminated soil will be removed and replaced with clean soil and relandscaped free of charge.
“If you’re interested, we’d love to sign you up,” Garcetti told Alfredo Monreal, 62, one of his first prospective customers during the door-to-door campaign Saturday.
“Just fill out this simple form,” he added, extending a copy of the document and a pen to Monreal.
Later, Monreal mused, “I could use a new lawn. Mine went to weeds after I stopped watering because of the drought.”
Another satisfied customer was Elvira Fernandez, 92, who has lived in the same wood-frame and stucco house for 50 years.
After Fernandez signed up for the soil tests, Garcetti kissed her on the cheek.
Moments later, Fernandez smiled and said, “My kids are sure going to be surprised to see the mayor kissing me on television!”
LOS ANGELES >> Boyle Heights residents who live near the now-closed Exide battery plant have been informed about support services available to help with possible contamination.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisor Hilda Solis, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra and other officials took part in a neighborhood walk and resource fair Saturday to encourage residents to sign up to have their properties tested for lead contamination. The County Department of Public Health also offered free on-site blood testing.
Residents who were unable to attend Saturday’s event were able to access several services in person including a drop-in resource center at the Benjamin Franklin Library on First Street.
Residents were also encouraged to visit exidecleanup.lacity.org for more information.
The 15-acre Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015, but “left behind a legacy of environmental contamination in Maywood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Commerce and East Los Angeles” reaching out in about a 1.75- mile radius, according to Cynthia Harding, the Public Health Department’s interim director.
Though gaseous plant emissions are no longer an issue, lead contamination in the soil, which can cause developmental delays and cognitive impairments, remains a concern.
The county estimates that up to 10,000 homes could have lead contamination, with about 10 percent of those expected to show levels qualifying as hazardous waste.
L.A.’s sanitation bureau is joining the state Department of Toxic Substances Control in testing soil samples gathered in Boyle Heights, and will also test water and green waste to monitor contamination levels. When testing is complete, multiple city agencies will expedite permit processing so that cleanup can begin as soon as possible.
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.
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.