Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation Wednesday that will deliver $176.6 million towards testing and cleanup of lead contamination in communities surrounding the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

According to the governor’s office, the funds will “expedite and expand testing and cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare center and parks” around the shuttered plant.

While the appropriation is coming from the state, the release indicates that cleanup costs will ultimately be sought from Exide. Brown originally proposed the funding package in February after facing months of criticism for inaction on an environmental crisis in East Los Angeles communities.

After decades of contamination and inaction, crews have been testing for lead in thousands of homes in Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Huntington Park and East Los Angeles for the last few months.

Photo by Art Torres
The Exide plant in Vernon was closed last year after operating 33 years without a permit. Photo by Art Torres

The effort aims to assess the contamination of soil by Exide, which was forced to close last year after it was found to be releasing harmful chemicals into the air and soil. The effort, which some say has taken far too long to get started, is part of a plan to test all properties within a 1.7 mile radius of the plant for lead contamination and clean up those that need it.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control says about 10,000 nearby properties, including schools, day-care centers and homes, may be polluted with lead.

Neighborhood activists say Brown’s appropriation is too little too late. The Neighborhood Watch group at the Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights took on Exide three years ago, when community members first learned of the contamination. Exide operated on a temporary permit for 33 years.

“My people are being abused by this, and we had to do something about it,” says the Rev. John Moretta, pastor of Resurrection Church.

An official response

Now officials are trying to make amends. On a recent Saturday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti walked the neighborhood around García Park in Boyle Heights to try and persuade residents to sign paperwork to allow their properties to be tested.

“Exide has taken so much from us, and we are here to make sure it is given back,” Mayor Garcetti said during a press conference at Garcia Park.

While the mayor blamed the state for slow action, some critics say the city also took too long to take action.

Mayor Eric Garcetti held a press conference in Boyle Heights’ García Park. Some activists boycotted the mayor. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.
Mayor Eric Garcetti held a press conference in Boyle Heights’ García Park. Some activists boycotted the mayor. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.

Mark López, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, says his group boycotted the recent press conference and neighborhood walk. While he encourages residents to sign up for property testing, he blames the mayor for not acting quickly and not doing enough.

“We need the city to commit funds, similar to what the county has done, for a sustained effort to reach residents, test properties and move us closer to justice,” says Lopez.

Lopez says the county has been testing soil at much faster rate than the state.

Part of what East Yard Communities is now trying to do, says López, is to coordinate the state and county efforts to avoid duplication. López says he knows residents in Commerce who had their properties tested twice, by different agencies, while others have not been tested at all.  He fears that if this continues, resources will be depleted before all properties are tested.

The first 1,000 properties tested over the past year, by both the Department of Toxic Substances Control and Los Angeles County, show levels of lead that require cleanup.

Residents ask about justice

Many residents question the city’s and state’s lack of urgency about the issue, especially after last year’s natural gas leak in Porter Ranch received more media attention and quick results.

Last year, a leaking natural gas well released as much as 100,000 tons of methane into the air near Porter Ranch, an upscale housing development. After complaints from residents about the negative health effects, more than 2,000 residents were relocated within in two months. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, and Los Angeles County filed criminal charges against Southern California Gas Co. for failing to report the leak quickly enough.

Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzales says his cancer was caused by Exide contamination. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.
Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzales says his cancer was caused by Exide contamination. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.

Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzales is one of many who believe the far slower official response to the Exide contamination represents an injustice. Gonzales, 60, says he suffers from brain and eye cancer, and he blames Exide and the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“This needs to be cleaned up now,” says Gonzales.  “Every single day we have people living in this toxic wasteland.”

Although dangerous for any person, high lead levels are most toxic to pregnant women and children under seven. In pregnant women, they can cause high blood pressure, memory loss and miscarriages, as well as brain damage to their fetuses.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no safe lead level in children has been identified.  Even low levels of lead can affect brain development, academic achievement and the ability to pay attention.

The Exide recycling plant, when operating, processed 11 million batteries a year. It was forced to shut down after the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that the plant’s emissions exceeded permitted levels of lead and that it was practicing illegal methods of disposing, storing, shipping and transporting hazardous waste.

Health officials determined there was an increased risk of cancer and developmental delays for children living in surrounding communities.

The city says it’s trying to work directly with the community and inform residents about the testing in ways that make them feel more comfortable. Instead of sending officials door-to-door, it istraining volunteers, predominantly youth, how to explain to residents the importance of allowing the Department of Toxic Substances Control Agency to test for lead.  Residents have to give the department permission.

Jennifer Martinez, 15, a member of the Mayor’s Youth Council, says she got involved to help the community, even though she is a resident of South Los Angeles.

“This is something people should know and need to be aware of so further generations won’t be affected by this contamination,” says Martinez. She plans to continue to inform residents on what is being done to help.

According to health officials, it will take at least two years to clean up the properties. Homes with the highest levels of lead–those at or above 1,000 parts per million– will be given priority, as will households with pregnant women or children under seven.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control says it will test all 10,000 properties by July 2017 and clean up approximately 2,500 properties by July 2018.  Property owners will not incur any costs for testing or clean up.

A person can be exposed to lead either by breathing it in or ingesting it after touching contaminated soil. Before properties are cleaned up, residents have been asked to take precautions to reduce exposure by avoiding or covering areas of bare soil. Other precautions include removing shoes before going into a house and washing hands after coming inside. For children, touching old paint containing lead is also a common source of lead poisoning.

Residents living within a 3-mile radius of the plant are encouraged to get their blood tested. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health will provide free blood lead testing for the next five years to any person who lives, works or goes to school in the areas near Exide.

Photo above: Mayor Eric Garcetti gets Boyle Heights residents to sign up for lead testing in their home. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.

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