EXIDE VERNON: Lawmakers finally move bills for Exide cleanup
LAWMAKERS MOVE BILLS FOR EXIDE CLEANUP
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
When Teresa Marquez first heard that Gov. Jerry Brown was proposing $176.6 million to expedite and expand the cleanup of homes and other properties contaminated by a now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling plant, she told herself and others, “I won’t believe it, until I see it.”
It’s been nearly two months since state lawmakers assured residents they would within two weeks introduce “urgency legislation” to appropriate the funding proposed by Brown, a commitment they made good on Wednesday with the introduction of the “Exide Clean-Up Package” in the Assembly and Senate.
Lea este artículo en Español: Legisladores Avanzan con la Limpieza de Exide
Under AB 118, authored by Majority Whip Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, and the Senate version authored by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, SB 93, the state would immediately appropriate a $176.6 million loan to the Department of Toxic Substances Control to be used for cleanup of east and southeast communities contaminated with lead and other toxic chemicals by the Exide plant in Vernon.
The bills are expected to land on the governor’s desk by the end of next week, and all accounts are that he will sign it.
“This is an aggressive bill and timeline,” said Santiago, who kicked off the process by talking up the merits of the bills during a special meeting of a budget subcommittee Wednesday morning.
“I stand by my original statement that we are looking for the fasted, highest quality process to speed up the cleanup efforts,” Santiago told EGP Wednesday. The assemblyman, who represents most of the communities contaminated by the Exide plant, including Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Vernon, Maywood and Huntington Park, was a regular face at DTSC hearings and meetings.
His bill, AB 118, gives DTSC access to the funds through June 2018, a date which Santiago’s chief of staff, Jackie Koenig, told EGP is included as a budget mechanism, explaining funds will still be available to DTSC after the 2018 date if needed.
The multi-million dollar loan can only be used for cleanup related activities, including testing and the CEQA environmental review process, as well as for job training of local hires and any costs related to the recovery of the funds from potentially responsible parties, including Exide.
It also mandates that DSTC keep the public informed of its progress by regularly posting on its website the number of property access agreements received, properties sampled and properties remedied. The state regulatory agency will also be required to update state legislators on the cleanup effort and provide a summary of their findings during DTSC’s annual funding requests.
DTSC is preparing to begin the environmental impact report (EIR) process and hopes to begin the cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks in the 1.7-mile radius surrounding the battery recycling plant by late spring 2017. The EIR is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which mandates state and local agencies identify significant environmental impacts and mitigation to the community.
Initially, there was a proposal to exempt the community cleanup from the CEQA process out of concern that it could further stall the process to remove lead, arsenic, and other potentially dangerous chemicals from area homes and other properties.
However, last week, DTSC Director Barbara Lee, speaking to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee for Resources and Transportation, said it’s the wish of community leaders and environmental groups to not exempt the Exide cleanup from CEQA process. The initial thinking was to give the cleanup the highest priority as quickly, effectively and safely as possible, she said.
The environmental review process will begin in early May with a 30-day public review of the notice of preparation, followed by a public scoping meeting later that month, according to DTSC. The agency estimates it will release a draft EIR sometime in October. Assuming no extensions are granted, the public will have 45 days to comment on the DEIR in writing or during a public hearing. DTSC estimates it could release a final EIR for public review sometime in March 2017 and certify the document in by April, if there are no delays.
The state agency is currently sampling and cleaning properties using the $7 million it received from Exide last summer. The CEQA process would not effect future testing, which would continue while the EIR is being approved, according to DTSC.
“The administration remains open to working with community leaders and the legislature to explore ways to expedite the CEQA review,” Lee told the committee last week. “The health and safety of this community – especially the youngest and most vulnerable in it – has to be our top priority.”
Congressman Xavier Becerra, who also serves the impacted areas and serves as Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, applauded Governor Brown’s recent decision not to exempt the Exide lead cleanup from the CEQA review process.
“The Governor did the right thing by respecting the will of the residents impacted by the contamination. They deserve to have the cleanup, remediation and oversight done in a way that gains their trust and confidence after years of neglect,” he said. “While it’s important to promptly undertake all the measures necessary to restore a clean and safe environment for the families, the work must be done, first and foremost, in partnership with the families who must live through this.”
DTSC now says it will use information from the California Department of Public Health, which conducted blood tests to determine the levels of lead in children living in the areas surrounding the Vernon plan, to “refine and target our testing and cleanup.”
To date, over 1000 properties in the area surrounding Exide have been sampled and over 200 properties have been cleaned, according to DTSC.
Marquez believes that is still too little, too late.
“I don’t know why it’s taken so long, you would think by now they would be further along,” she said.
“Children are being poisoned,” she emphasized. “We want it done yesterday.”
Santiago agrees and says he is concerned that the remediation process could be prolonged.
“Every day we wait is a day our community doesn’t get justice,” he told EGP.
DTSC should have taken good notes throughout the dozens of public meetings conducted on the issue, Santiago told EGP, referring to testimony already available on the impact of Exide’s toxic polluting as well as concerns about potential risks during the cleanup process.
“We need to make sure we get this right on the front end so we don’t run into the same problems,” he said.
“I can assure all the red tape will be torn down and the neighborhoods will be cleaned up.”
Update 11:45 a.m. This post has been updated to include a statement from Congressman Xavier Becerra.
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In response to community objections, the Brown administration has dropped its opposition to a California Environmental Quality Act review of an expanded cleanup of lead around the old Exide plant, the head of the state toxics agency said Wednesday. The dispute had been holding up action on Gov. Brown’s proposal for $177 million to fund the effort.
When he asked for the funds last month, Brown proposed exempting the cleanup from the Act as a way to expedite the process.
In testimony before the Assembly Resources and Transportation subcommittee Wednesday, Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said Brown’s administration will no longer insist on an exemption from the Act. “It has become clear that many community representatives would prefer that we use the full CEQA process to review the cleanup plan,” she said.
Lee added that “the full CEQA process … will delay the start of this cleanup until spring of 2017, at the soonest” so the administration “remains open to working with community leaders and the legislature to explore ways to expedite CEQA review.”
The governor’s shift in position will clear the way for quick approval of the cleanup bill, said State Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
“Now that we’ve settled the concerns about the CEQA process, my urgency legislation to expedite delivery of the cleanup funds will move quickly,” he said.
Because the bill is designated as “urgency legislation” the $176.6 million – funded as a loan from the general fund to be repaid by those responsible for the lead contamination — would be dispersed immediately upon passage.
Community groups had argued that waiving the requirements of the Environmental Quality Act could endanger the health and well-being of the people affected by the contamination and the cleanup, said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and a member of the state’s Exide community advisory board.
“This shows that the governor is starting to be responsive to our communities and so we look forward to continually engaging with him and his office so that as we move forward we are doing this in the most health protective way possible,” Lopez said.
“This is the correct thing to do to protect the community,” said David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organization had argued that exempting the project from the Environmental Quality Act would be “inappropriate and unnecessary.”
Activists say the additional time environmental review adds to the cleanup is worth it, given the protections of the Environmental Quality Act. They are optimistic they can work on ways to expedite the process.
“I don’t think it needs to take a year,” Lopez said. “A lot of work has been laid down by us and other community groups and with the Department of Toxic Substances Control and [air quality regulators] and the advisory group. The more we can work together the quicker this will all move.”
The Environmental Quality Act requires agencies to identify, avoid and mitigate environmental impacts of the work they do. Along with ensuring that the removal of tons of contaminated soil won’t create more problems, activists say they want the community input process ensured by the Act.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who will carry the bill in the Assembly, said he is “encouraged” but still “vigilant” because there are many more steps in the process.
“CEQA includes all the strong environmental protections and we are going to push for the highest quality clean up,” he said.
Until now, Toxic Substances Control had said the $177 million would enable it to clean up around 2,500 of the most contaminated properties by June 2018. If the project moves forward under the full CEQA process and begins in spring 2017, Toxic Substances Control says the earliest that part of the project would be completed would be fall 2019.
Exide smelted batteries in Vernon until last year, when the state ordered it to shut down after it operated for decades on a temporary permit. At the time, Toxic Substances Control said a few hundred homes closest to the site would be tested and cleaned up. Last August, the agency said up to 10,000 properties could be contaminated in a 1.7 mile radius around the smelter.
Since then, of the more than 1,000 properties that have been tested by the state and L.A. County, nearly all will need to be cleaned up and one in five showed lead levels higher than 1,000 parts per million, considered the highest priority for cleanup by the state agency.
Lee also said Wednesday that the California Department of Public Health has given the state Environmental Protection Agency “an analysis of blood lead levels for children in the area surrounding the Exide facility.” The information “will be used to further refine and target our testing and cleanup,” she said.