EXIDE VERNON: Residents work to expand testing area from Exide smelter’s lead contamination to 4.5 miles from DTSC’s 1.7 mile cleanup zone
Demands to Expand Exide Test Area Grow
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
At the first public hearing since the governor signed legislation to appropriate $176.6 million for the testing and cleanup of residential properties surrounding the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, residents were not jumping for joy or thanking state regulators. Instead, they were tired, frustrated and irked that testing for lead has not been expanded further into east and southeast L.A.
A number of residents testified in support of extending the 1.7-mile cleanup zone to 4.5 miles, getting support from DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Committee, which voted last Thursday to recommend expanding the testing area and to appoint an independent third party to oversee the cleanup.
It is not clear what practical impact the vote will have, but in a statement to EGP, the Department of Toxic Substances Control explained that the agency had set the 1.7 mile testing boundary based on preliminary analysis of soil data, which found that lead emissions from Exide may have traveled 1.3 to 1.7 miles from the facility.
“DTSC appreciates the input of the committee, which was set up to advise DTSC as we move forward,” the agency’s statement says.
Clara Solis lives just outside the 1.7 testing area: Last week she presented DTSC with a petition signed by area residents demanding the testing area be expanded.
“You really don’t know what you are doing because you haven’t tested those areas,” said the East Los Angeles resident.
Rachel Vermillion, who frequents public hearings for the SR-710 extension project, complained her community is constantly bypassed.
A study released last month by the Department of Public Health found that children who live near the Vernon plant have higher levels of lead in their blood.
According to the study, 3.58 percent of young children who live within a mile of the plant had 4.5 micrograms of lead in their blood; children living 1 to 4.5 miles from the plant had 2.41 to 4.5 micrograms or higher levels of lead. According to the Center for Disease Control even low levels of lead can affect IQ and academic achievement. The agency believes there are no safe blood lead level for children.
Of the 10,000 or so properties in that preliminary investigation area, 213 properties have already been cleaned. State funds will be used to test all 10,000 properties and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead.
Jim Wells, technical advisor to DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Group, previously stated he believes the contamination goes beyond the 1.7 miles boundary. That would mean millions of people at risk and tens of thousands of additional properties contaminated.
“…To better understand what the conditions really are,” more “robust” data must be collected, Wells said.
One Bell Gardens High School student wanted to know if schools were informed that the area has one of the highest number of children with lead in their blood.
Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez accused DTSC of “minimizing the amount of blood that’s safe in the body.
“The safe level of lead in the body is zero,” he said.
Huntington Park resident Maria Kennedy is a member of Communities for a Better Environment.
She told the committee she felt DTSC was downplaying the Dept. of Public Health’s blood level report. “Homes should be tested for lead regardless if Exide is responsible,” she said. “We should be thinking about the high levels of lead in children and secure funding” to handle the problem, Kennedy said.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee responded that the state has stepped up to the plate, approving a multi-million dollar funding plan. Lee said she needs to demonstrate those funds are being used properly before attempting to secure more money.
“The state has never put forward that kind of money, it’s going to keep us busy for the next couple of years,” she added.
But Teresa Marquez of Boyle Heights feels money should not be the concern.
“We may not have the money but we need to know” the extent of the problem, she said. “How can you get more money if you can’t prove the need?”
Contamination must surely reach Bell Gardens, said Xugo Lujan with East Yards for Environmental Justice. “It’s not like it reaches Atlantic and drops to the floor,” he said pointing to the map. Jorge Lara, another Bell Gardens student demanded to know if homes outside the 1.7-mile radius would be tested. He never got an answer.
Noel Pimentel of Commerce said the city’s residents who were incorporated into the testing area last summer are still waiting for test results.
Commerce Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo asked Lee why homes with young children and pregnant women are no longer considered first priority given the agency’s previous assertions that they would be a top priority for cleanup even if their soil tested less than 1000 ppm.
“We’re confused and residents are upset,” she complained. “They were told they would be priority one and now they are being told they are priority two.”
Lee did not directly respond but assured that the agency plans to decontaminate 2,500 homes with lead levels of 1,000 ppm or higher.
According to Lee, DTSC is developing a new system to prioritize properties for cleanup. Lee said DTSC does take the risk of exposure into consideration.
“There’s just too many in one bin,” she pointed out, hedging her remarks.
Not satisfied with Lee’s response, Rebollo pushed the director to explain how the agency plans to address possible contamination at schools.
Schools have not tested as high as residential properties, responded Lee.
Testing results will be available to schools in the coming weeks, and could be made public if the school district approves, according to Su Patel, DTSC site project manager.
“I find it contradictory that you say children are a priority when you don’t have a plan in place for schools,” criticized Rebollo.
Lee reiterated that expanding the testing area from 200 homes to 10,000 properties requires a change in the three-bin prioritization process.
“We need more bins,” she said. “We can’t have 2,000 in first place because we won’t know where to start.”
Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards and the advisory group’s community chairperson, closed the nearly four-hour long meeting by saying elected officials and state regulators must understand there is still a long way to go.
“There seems to be a growing frustration during meetings that comes from folks taking credit when the cameras show up, when we get the money, but when there is critique, those folks want to act” like everything they are hearing is new.