State asked to establish fund for Exide cleanup

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — During an oversight hearing Nov. 16 on the residential cleanup around the former Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon, county Supervisor Hilda Solis pushed state legislators to establish a fund to pay for decontamination of thousands of homes in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East L.A., Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon.

Solis also repeated her longstanding concern that regulators are not moving quickly enough.

The state auditor’s report has validated the concerns many of us continue to have about the inadequate pace of the residential cleanup and how [the Department of Toxic Substances Control] is spending the enormous amount of public resources dedicated to this cleanup,” Solis said.

The hearing was conducted by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee to follow-up on the audit of the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s progress in mitigating high levels of lead in soil around the shuttered plant.

In October, the auditor found that even high-risk properties like child care centers and schools have yet to be cleaned.

In the early stages of its cleanup effort, the Department of Toxic Substances Control identified 50 properties — including child care centers, schools, and parks — where lead contamination posed a particularly high risk to children who frequently spend time at these locations. Despite the risk these properties present, [the department] has yet to clean 31 of them. In fact, it has cleaned only one of these properties since May 2018,” the audit report concluded.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control set a goal to clean the 3,200 most contaminated properties by June 2021, but is unlikely to meet that plan, according to the audit.

Cost is another issue. The state funded $261 million for the 3,200 properties, but the regulatory agency was expected to exhaust that funding before completing the clean up of just 269 properties, according to the report, which put the total cost of the cleanup at about $650 million.

In its response to the findings, the Department of Toxic Substances Control called the Exide project “the largest, most logistically complex residential cleanup project the state of California has ever undertaken” and noted that it is exceeded in size by only one other residential cleanup site nationwide.

More than 2,000 residential properties in the area have been cleaned to date, but Solis said more families need to know when they can expect that their properties will be made safe. Solis estimates that 7,800 properties in all are contaminated.

She urged legislators to force the Department of Toxic Substances Control to pick up the pace and publish a schedule for the balance of the work. Solis also called for adoption of the auditor’s recommendations to control cleanup costs and for ongoing monitoring by legislators.

The Exide plant, which opened in 1922, operated for years despite continuing environmental violations. In addition to lead-contaminated soil, concerns were raised about the emission of arsenic, cadmium and other toxic chemicals and the release of battery acid onto roads.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute Exide for violations of hazardous waste laws in exchange for safely shutting down the Vernon facility and cleaning up related contamination, including lead found in the soil of surrounding homes.

When Exide closed the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding area. Of that amount, $26 million was meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

Department of Toxic Substances Control officials issued a formal determination in October that the condition of the site presents an “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare or to the environment.”

Later that month, a bankruptcy court judge approved a settlement agreement allowing Exide to formally abandon the Vernon facility without further liability. Under the agreement, a bond of $11.16 million was issued in connection with liabilities related to the Vernon site.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials expressed outrage over the bankruptcy court’s decision and vowed to continue to fight to hold Exide accountable.