The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is behind schedule on the cleanup of thousands of homes and other properties contaminated with lead from the shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, a state audit released Tuesday said.
The report by State Auditor Elaine Howle’s office said the state mismanaged the cleanup and will need to spend $390 million more than what it has to finish the job, and faulted state regulators for leaving children in Boyle Heights and other Eastside communities at continued risk of poisoning.
The Los Angeles Times reported that one of most troubling findings in the audit was DTSC’s failure to remove lead-tainted soil from 31 of the 50 properties that it identified at the onset of the cleanup as posing a particularly high risk to children –including 26 child-care centers, two schools and three parks.
“Despite the risk these properties present,” the audit said, DTSC “has cleaned only one of these properties since May 2018.”
Lead contamination is known to cause cancer, developmental disabilities and other neurological damage.
The audit found that at its current pace, the cleanup of the 3,200 worst-contaminated properties will not be finished “until more than one year after the expected completion date” in June 2021, thus “extending the time that residents in the cleanup site are exposed to dangerous levels of lead.”
The report estimated that cleaning all 7,800 contaminated properties within a 1.7 radius of the Exide plant –what has been determined to be the pollution zone – could ultimately approach $650 million. The state has allocated nearly $260 million for the cleanup of the most contaminated of those properties, but DTSC will exhaust that funding with 269 of those properties untouched.
There is no plan in place to clean the other 4,600 properties that will remain contaminated, the audit noted.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who requested the audit, said “it is unacceptable that the department will run out of money that the state gave them” and demanded ”DTSC fix their mistakes and create a realistic plan to clean up every single contaminated property.”
In a response letter released with the audit, DTSC Director Meredeith Williams said the department does not have sufficient funds to clean the remaining 4,600 properties, and “without knowing a sustained level of funding, providing people in the community with an end date for the cleanup of their properties is at best a guess.”
Williams said the department has finished more than 2,000 cleanups and is now decontaminating at a rate of 24 properties per week.
The audit was released less than two weeks after a federal bankruptcy court approved a plan by Exide to abandon the Vernon plant and leave the cleanup cost to state taxpayers. California is appealing the decision, though efforts to stop Exide’s exit have been so far unsuccessful.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a federal judge’s denial of the state’s emergency motion to stop the bankruptcy forced California to concede to forming an environmental trust, to be formed by Exide and managed by a court-appointed trustee, that will oversee the highly-contaminated Vernon property once Exide is dissolved.
The trust will operate with $30 million –much less than the $70 to $100 million needed to safely demolish and stabilize the property. That money is separate from funds being used to clean up the surrounding properties in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, City of Commerce, Maywood and Huntington Park.