California toxics agency vows improvements on Exide cleanup
The head of the state agency that monitors toxic substances said it needs to radically improve communications with residents near the former Exide battery recycling facility in Vernon, where it is undertaking the largest environmental cleanup in California history.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control’s vow came in response to a Times investigation earlier this month that showed numerous properties that had been remediated at a high cost to state taxpayers had lead levels in their yards that exceeded state health standards lay.
However, many community members and supporters were unhappy with the promise, and one resident dismissed it as “another DTSC world apology tour” on Thursday night. They want the department to commit to improving not only their communications, but the way they’ve been conducting the massive cleanup.
The Times reported that researchers from USC and the Occidental College examined surface soil from the yards of 93 previously rehabilitated homes and found that 73 had at least one soil sample with lead concentrations above California’s healthy threshold of 80 parts per million. The department’s own data shows that contractors working for the state have failed to meet state cleaning targets on more than 500 properties out of 3,370 cleaned near the closed Vernon facility, The Times reported.
DTSC director Meredith Williams said the department’s scientists could not comment on USC’s findings “until we … see the full results and methods of the study.” Only then, she added, could officials “identify where there are problems that we need to fix.”
Researchers have made their data public, but said they did not provide results on individual traits due to federal regulations designed to protect human subjects participating in research studies.
Still, Williams said it was “crystal clear” that “DTSC needs to improve the way we communicate with you about our work and how it impacts you.” She said officials always anticipated that “in some cases, we can’t remove all of the contaminants on a property” because there are underground obstructions like pipes or foundations.
“We recognize that we haven’t been clear enough about what this means and we vow to do better,” Williams said. In cases where lead is left behind, she added, “the state may need to come back and do more.”
Williams and her proxies revealed their promises during a sometimes rowdy community meeting held on video Thursday night. They said that beginning the week of March 6, officials will hold face-to-face meetings in Boyle Heights and in cities in southeast Los Angeles County to hear and respond quickly to residents’ concerns about the cleanup.
Officials said they also now plan to reach out to tenants, who make up a significant portion of the cleanup area’s residents, rather than just homeowners, to make them aware of the work being done in thousands of homes.
Many residents and advocates reacted angrily that this was not nearly enough.
“The amount of misinformation being given [tonight] is disgusting,” said Mark! Lopez, a community organizer for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, who for years has pushed the state for a more vigorous purge.
Lopez said state officials falsely claimed they would adequately oversee contractors cleaning people’s yards when “abuses get rampant. We have visited sites with your employees and witnessed violations with your employees.”
He also took offense at the idea that the state was committed to protecting the community, noting that officials have tried in the past to limit the number of homes being cleaned, only expanding the area under pressure from county officials had.
After the meeting, Jill Johnston, an associate professor of environmental health at USC who conducts soil surveys in the area, noted that the state’s plan calls for contractors to remove soil until its lead content is below 80 parts per million, and that workers Shovels and other hand tools will be used to dig near trees and structures. “Soil at the surface should be removed and replaced,” she said.
Tiff Sanchez, an East Yards youth organizer, dismissed the gathering as “another DTSC world apology tour,” saying it was “something we’re honestly fed up with, literally and figuratively.”
In response to Sanchez, Todd Sax, the DTSC’s associate director of site mitigation and recovery, said, “I hear you. I appreciate the anger. I understand that we still have a long way to go.”
Other residents specifically complained about the cleaning of their properties.
Andres Gonzalez, who lives in Maywood, told how he witnessed workers dumping contaminated dirt from a neighbor’s house over a fence into bushes in his yard.
“They had a big dumpster that seemed full,” he said, adding that instead of getting another dumpster, they cleaned up the dirt in his yard. “As I stepped out the front door, I heard a loud ‘Oh, s—’,” he said.
Several employees of contract crews who carried out the lead remediation work defended their work. Juan Flores, who said he was employed by a cleaning crew, said he saw his job as “caring for the community that has been suffering for a long time”.
The $750 million cleanup — the largest and costliest in California history — was launched six years ago after the battery recycling facility closed after state officials found up to 10,000 properties had been contaminated by pollution from the facility.
Officials had hoped Exide would pay for the bailout, but the company was allowed to walk away from much of its financial commitment after filing for bankruptcy protection. Exide has argued in the past that it is not responsible for the lead pollution in surrounding neighborhoods, pointing to other sources such as lead paint.
Heads of state have described the massive cleanup as a reparation measure for affected neighborhoods Decades of environmental degradation And government negligence. Many in the community were angry that the state had allowed the facility to operate for so long despite a history of illegal air pollution and hazardous waste violations.
As the cost of the redevelopment mounts, state officials have also appealed to the federal government to designate the closed facility and the area around it as a Superfund site, which would pave the way for federal funding to support the redevelopment.
Last week, members of Congress, including Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach) and Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, called on the EPA to intervene, citing the Times investigation.
In a statement Friday, EPA officials said that the agency “continues to work tirelessly to gather evidence” to support the state’s Superfund request, and that EPA staff were in southeast Los Angeles last week as part of that effort county were.
State Assembly Member Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who represents Boyle Heights and has pushed for more funding for the cleanup, said he will be monitoring the situation closely.
“There is no room for excuses or mistakes when it comes to cleaning up our neighborhoods,” he said. “Anything else is unacceptable.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-02-24/state-toxics-officials-vow-to-do-better-on-exide-cleanup-residents-arent-satisfied California toxics agency vows improvements on Exide cleanup