EXIDE VERNON EDITORIAL – LOS ANGELES TIMES: It’s unacceptable to delay Exide cleanup when public health is at stake
Earlier this month, state officialsÂ revealedÂ that they hadÂ found nearly 250 spots on 203 propertiesÂ near the former Exide battery recycling plant where levels of brain-damaging lead were more than 10 times higher than Californiaâ€™s health standard and at concentrations that were highÂ enough to be considered â€œhazardous wasteâ€ under the law.Â Another 2,200 spots hadÂ concentrations that would make it unsafe for children to play in the yard.
Thatâ€™s scary news. YetÂ theÂ residents living in these dangerous conditions amidÂ high levels of a potent neurotoxin will have to wait a year or more to have their property cleaned up. Thatâ€™s one more year that parents willÂ have to keep their kids away from the soilÂ because evenÂ small amounts of lead can cause permanent brain damage in young children, leading to lifelong learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Itâ€™s one more year ofÂ extremeÂ caution to make sureÂ shoes, toys andÂ pets donâ€™tÂ carry contaminated dirt into the house. One more year of fear that, despite their best efforts, their childrenâ€™sÂ futures could be irreparably harmed because regulators allowed the Exide plant to spew lead and other pollutants into the air for decades.
It may be tempting to vilify the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency responsible for overseeing the cleanup. This is theÂ department, after all, that allowed Exide to operate with onlyÂ a temporary permit and outdated air pollution controls for 30 years, despite repeated air-quality and hazardous-waste violations. The plant may have contaminated as many as 10,000 homes within an area ofÂ 1.7 miles. But under new leadership and the scrutiny of state lawmakers, the DTSC is nowÂ attempting one of the largest cleanups of its kind in California. Itâ€™s also trying to balance the need for immediate action with an insistence on careful, lawful action.
When Brown announced his emergency funding plan in February, he proposed exempting the cleanup from the California Environmental Quality Act, which would have allowed state officials to skip the lengthy environmental impact report process before removing lead-laced soil from all homes. ButÂ community and environmental groups balked at the exemption. After decades of lax regulation and disregard for residentsâ€™ health, the community didnâ€™t trust the DTSC to manage the massive cleanup in the safest way possible. CEQA would ensure that residents had input and thatÂ the process would be transparent. Their concern was understandable, and BrownÂ droppedÂ his proposed CEQA exemption.
The result, however, is that DTSC officials say they canâ€™t clean up the vast majority of theÂ properties until the environmental impact report is complete in May â€“ and thatâ€™s assuming there are no delays or challenges. But that timeline ignores the tremendous public health risk that some families face right now.
DTSC officials recognize that â€” to a degree. The agency has completed emergency cleanups at three housesÂ â€” without going through theÂ CEQA processÂ â€” in each case becauseÂ a child tested positive for elevated lead in his or her blood. Â But why wait on the other propertiesÂ until after a child is poisoned by lead? Why not prevent poisoning by treating highly-contaminated, high-risk properties as the emergency situations they are?
DTSC officials say they are trying to do the right thing â€” including urging parents to get their children tested for lead poisoning and telling residents how to reduce their exposure â€” while the agency develops a comprehensive cleanup plan and EIR. Â But the drawn-out statutoryÂ timelines of CEQA should not be a reason for delay. Officials cannot lose focus on their first and greatest priority: protecting public health.