Cleanup work resumes at former battery plant

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

VERNON — Cleanup work at the former Exide plant battery plant has resumed after lead emission flareups caused by a combination of high winds and the removal of scaffolding supporting tarps forced a temporary shutdown of cleanup work in late May.

Vernon Environmental Response Trust trustee Robert Puga said none of the lead particles originated from inside of what was segment 2, a giant structure used to dismantle batteries.

The lead build up that trickled out from the tarps did not surpass limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of monitoring the trust, Puga said.

“We never exceeded our level [of emissions]. We did not expect it, but emissions got a little close. We stopped ourselves a couple times to have a better understanding what caused the levels,” Puga said. “We are back running, but we did what we had to do.”

Puga said work stoppage was voluntary and extended from May 26 to June 14. The increase in hazardous airborne pollutants occurred after decontamination in that area had finished.

The trust implemented half workdays from June 14 through June 21, after cleanup crews phased in additional dust control measures, air levels with pollutants dropped and wind data improved following nearly two weeks of particle upticks.

The shutdown affected the boarding up of other ancillary facilities. Full time cleanup work has resumed.

“The trust noticed there was an upward trend from the baseline levels we normally see at air monitoring station data around the facility, so the work was proactively stopped to ensure protection of the community,” the EPA reported on its Exide site cleanup page dated May 26.

The EPA created the website to offer information and updates on cleanup issues pertaining to the controversial battery smelter after Exide exited bankruptcy procedures in October 2020.

The website is updated every Tuesday in response to requests at community gatherings with local residents for oversight due to decontamination delays, lack of work transparency and mounting illnesses tied to lead exposure.

Cleanup crews at the former Exide plant installed additional windshields and gauged air pollutants in five monitoring stations back to safe levels before restarting full workdays from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The EPA’s standards for airborne lead emissions at the worksite is 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter cube on a 30-day average. Current particle emissions measure 0.022, the VERT trustee said.

Current dismantling work centers on exterior coating of six smokestacks at industrial segment 3 to avert further disintegration of the columns, slated to be chopped in 10 to 14 pieces.

The containment coat is being sprayed along the roofline to mitigate lead release when the smokestacks are disassembled.

Currently, a giant construction crane assists workers treating the smokestacks, before the removal of the columns begins next week.

Puga said he expects a full teardown and cleanup of segment 3 to be completed by year’s end. He declined to elaborate how much longer the plant’s cleanup would take, but confided that the allocation of at least $132 million by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature in the 2021-22 budget should be enough to investigate, mitigate and decontaminate the entire property.

Puga noted that representatives from the state’s Department of Toxic Public Substances, the agency that would initially handle the new funds, still needs to brief him on the scope of work, management and divvy up of expenses.

Barbara Zumwalt, public information officer with the California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, said in an email that the EPA posts and archives all documents related to the temporary shutdown and ongoing activities.

This is not the first time environmental hiccups and lack of funds have delayed the decontamination of the highly polluted battery recycling site this year.

At a May 13 virtual meeting, EPA physical scientist Amanda Cruz, who was assigned to supervise the trust, announced a temporary halt on cleanup efforts following a lack of permits required by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Also, six smaller structures had been boarded up and their demolition postponed because the trust projected a cash shortfall from the $11.16 million obtained from the Exide Technologies bankruptcy case settlement last year, used to decontaminate bigger structures with more dangerous levels of lead and arsenic.

Notices posted along a perimeter fence meshed with a plastic tarp to block street sight into the Exide structures indicate that the project’s cleanup is scheduled to continue through 2022.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control will hold a virtual community briefing that will address the temporary work stoppages on July 29 at 5:30 p.m.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice representative Mark Lopez blamed former Exide Technologies executives for the plant’s contamination and the difficulties in cleaning up the site.

“Mismanagement dealing with Exide even after they closed is why Exide was able to file for bankruptcy and not have to pay anymore for any cleanup,” Lopez said. “They don’t exist anymore, but the contamination is still here.”

In a related development, Gov. Newsom met with county Supervisor Hilda Solis and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia July 14 at a house in Bell Gardens to sign SB 158, a law that aims to make the Department of Toxic Substances Control more accountable and transparent.

Solis said Southeast Los Angeles County residents and community stakeholders who live close to factories and warehouses that produce hazardous wastes have told her that the Department of Toxic Substances Control “has historically been an agency that isn’t transparent or held accountable.”

“A well functioning DTSC is critical to protecting the public from contamination from hazardous waste facilities and ensuring taxpayers are not left on the hook financially for corporate polluters’ actions,” Solis said on her Facebook account.

Solis said SB 158 will reform the agency into “an entity that will prevent the next Exide and oversee the management of hazardous waste in California in a transparent manner that fully protects all communities and public health, irrespective of zip code or socioeconomic status.”

Environmental activists and residents in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce and Bell, communities that took the brunt of the lead emissions, have long assailed the corrupt relationship Exide executives cultivated with the agency’s regulators since the early 2000s, when the plant operated with temporary permits and renewed them intermittently until its closure in 2015.

The signage of SB 158 comes on the heels of a $454 million package approved in the current state budget to fund soil cleanups of the remaining 6,800 properties gauged to host dangerous lead levels. Clouds of lead from the plant blanketed nearby communities since its opening in 1922.

Project managers with the Department of Toxic Substances Control have said they expect to finish soil removal and restoration of 3,200 properties, including homes, child care centers and parks, by the end of December.