By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Residential cleanups continued at a rate of 80 parcels a month as efforts to eradicate the damage to the local environment done by the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant that closed in 2013 continued.
A state financial infusion of $454.4 million ensured decontamination projects will stretch through 2025.
Although hobbled by health and safety protocols tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control supervised scheduled cleanups that reached 3,139 of the projected 10,000 properties identified as containing serious lead levels within a 1.7-mile radius from the closed battery plant as of Dec. 3.
Here is a look at the top developments in 2021 surrounding the Exide Technologies environmental cleanups:
- New public funds ensure continued lead decontamination. State legislators approved an allocation from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget of $322.4 million to cover the costs of residential cleanups and $132 million to further deconstruction and remediation work at the former recycling battery plant.
The fresh funds prompted the department to open bids to hire two new environmental contractors for 2022 and assign them cleanups at 2,000 properties sampled for lead pollution within the preliminary investigation area encompassing homes in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Huntington Park and Bell.
- Trust advances deconstruction of Exide Technologies site. The Vernon Environmental Trust Fund (VERT), working under the oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, completed deconstruction of the plant’s smelter building 2 and refocused work to tear down six smoke stacks along the roofline of segment 3 and the eventual tear down of the building.
However, unexpected flare ups detected in May following the removal of segment 2 scaffolding pushed trustee Robert Puga to call for a temporary shutdown of operations while the EPA and the South Coast Air Quality Management District monitored airborne emissions to drop to safe levels before work resumed.
After crews identified a tear on tarps caused by strong winds that encapsulated the unit, they moved to mitigate toxic dust with a giant water cannon, dousing the scaffolding and collecting the runoffs.
“Area leaders were notified of the releases, and we contacted representatives of the affected communities in East Los Angeles,” said Jason Aspell, assistant deputy executive offices of engineering and permitting with the AQMD.
Aspell said that an air monitor parked at Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights did not pick up a rise on airborne pollutants when deconstruction was halted and resumed.
- Environmental activists earn a seat in advisory board. Years of distrust and suspicion of past cozy relationships between former owners, plant operators and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control propelled sharpened discussions among the Exide Technologies Advisory Group to refocus attention to the plight of residents.
Co-chaired by the Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Meredith Williams and Mark Lopez, special projects coordinator with East Yards Community for Environmental Justice, the advisory group admonished the current contractor, National Engineering Consulting Group, for scorning employees with alleged racial epithets and firing staff without cause.
The advisory board includes former and current residential cleanup workers, a university professor with a specialty on environmental and occupational health at Cal State Northridge and area residents.
The advisory group weighs in on a variety of issues that affect the quality of life at residential cleanup sites. Among them are the efficiency of contractors removing tainted soil and replacing it, and controversies involving labor issues and exposure to hazardous surfaces for humans and pets when trenches are opened.
- Cleanup workers push back against work discrimination. Former cleanup worker Pete Reyes complained National Engineering management laid him off for voicing concerns on the alleged verbal mistreatment of crews with Native American and Latino heritage, and of furloughs issued by a previous company when COVID-19 infections spiked more than a year ago, triggering state-mandated business closures and shelter at home orders.
He requested help from Grant Cope, deputy director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, to instruct National Engineering Consulting Group to amend contracts and type a clause that would notify workers of impending dismissals so they could weigh in on legal defense or find other opportunities.
Department of Toxic Substances Control information officer Barbara Zumwalt said that after the issue was raised last September, “we have amended the cleanup contract to require, at minimum, two weeks’ notice” or 10 work days.
Zumwalt said the current cleanups are covered with the last portion of the $251 million provided by former Gov. Jerry Brown, and that the department will seek to decontaminate at least 2,700 more parcels with the allocations included in the 2021-22 state budget.
- National Lead Industries sues local governments, homeowners. Another contentious issue emerged in August when National Lead Industries, an alleged past operator of the Exide plant, sued the city of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and beneficiaries of lead cleanups seeking full reimbursement in response to an initial lawsuit filed by the state looking to collect $136.5 million to remedy decontamination costs.
Based in Dallas, National Lead Industries also named in the lawsuit Exxon Mobil Corporation, the cities of Bell, Maywood, Commerce and Huntington Park and countersued eight other defendants named in the state’s lawsuit to force them to pay equitable shares in case the federal judge rules in favor of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
In its court filing answering the complaint, the Department of Toxic Substances Control asked U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson to dismiss the National Lead Industries suit.
Lopez, the representative from the East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, derided the suit as disgusting, and said the corporation is seeking to wiggle out of its liability punishing already battered communities for industrial toxic plumes.
“It’s ridiculous for companies responsible for lead exposure to hold our communities to blame for what they did to us,” Lopez said.
- All impacted child care centers are decontaminated. Senior engineering geologist Peter Ruttan announced that 8,647 parcels had been sampled for hazardous lead levels, with 1,513 still missing mostly due to lack of permits to pick up tainted soil.
Ruttan said all 79 child care centers within the impacted area had been tested and cleaned, and 14 did not require soil replacement.
With the recently allocated state funds, Ruttan confirmed that 2,089 new properties qualify for cleanups and said he mailed out notices to all residents to gain access and collect soil samples.
Of the respondents, the Department of Toxic Substances Control had secured permits to sample 837 parcels, with 62 concluded and 43 to go as of Dec. 3.
Overall, 8,647 properties had been tested for dangerous lead levels, and 1,513 were still missing.
“If the property owner has been previously reluctant, we will reengage and try to do that,” Ruttan concluded.