EPA seeks access agreements to begin soil testing

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Staff from the federal Environmental Protection Agency have invited residents in two neighborhoods impacted by lead and arsenic blown from the former Central Metal recycling site to sign access agreements and begin sampling soil from outdoor yards, paired with walkup information tables.

However, the manager in charge of running six information sites in March said the results were disappointing compared to knocking on doors and in-person interviews following the placement of door hangers in late February.

Matthew Mitguard, EPA’s site assessment manager with the superfund and emergency management division, said that residents did not show up at the first two walkup informative tables set on March 11 and 12 in the parking lot of Bloomfield High School, a charter school in Huntington Park, to discuss and sign access agreements to procure soil samples.

“This has not been very successful,” Mitguard said. “What’s been successful is the door-to-door effort.

We’ve done these walkups three weeks, and the third one is the best we’ve had.”

Before the first week’s end, Mitguard and community liason Saul Talamantes pivoted to make in-person visits to properties located in unincorporated Walnut Park and the Florence-Firestone neighborhoods.

They informed owners and tenants of the importance to test front and backyard soils as part of the investigation on whether Central Metal Inc. conducted business that released harmful toxins to humans, and invited them to fill and sign agreements to permit contractors dig up soil samples.

Efforts to collect soil samples started in full swing after a Feb. 15 meeting between EPA representatives, residents from the Walnut Park unincorporated area, the Firestone-Florence neighborhood and staff from U.S. Rep. Nannete Diaz Barragan.

Rossmery Zayas, lead person for Communities for a Better Environment, said in an email sent Feb.16 that the EPA announced in that assembly its intent to reach out to local local residents by knocking on doors and placing door hangers to explain the soil testing attempts and run informative tents.

Although the agency had not released outreach dates, Zayas said the meeting was “insightful.”

“Barragan’s staff has been extremely helpful and is on standby with how they can support these efforts,” Zayas said in her email. “EPA is directly communicating with them as well as some other elected [officials] to provide them updates on this process,”

Talamantes echoed that comment, and praised the congresswoman for her willingness to encourage residents to join the soil sampling drive.

He said that Barragan tagged along with EPA staff on March 19, knocking on residents’ doors and urging them to sign access agreements to gauge pollutants.

“She was very proactive and happy to help,” Talamantes said.

Later that day, Barragan posted on Twitter that she had been “door knocking this afternoon in #WalnutPark with @EPA to inform residents of the Central Metal investigation and the opportunity to have their soil tested for toxins.”

“Continue to fight for environmental justice in communities throughout South Los Angeles & Harbor Area. #CA44,” Barragan tweeted.

On March 25, the agency had reached agreements with 125 residents to test soil, reported 70 more to go, secured 40 access agreements from both owners and tenants, and had 15 partials pending signatures from either party.

Mitguard said whenever a property is leased, signatures from both the landlord and the tenants are required to secure access for soil testing.

The information tables were operated from 1 to 5 p.m. also on March 18, 19, 25 and 26.

The site manager announced that another round of household visits by EPA staff are slated April 7-9 to ensure all qualifying residents are included in the process and learn of the potential benefits of soil testing.

Once the EPA covers the targeted parcels in both neighborhoods and finishes gathering access agreements, the agency would switch to select 60 parcels in spread locations to gauge toxicity levels in yards that might have received the brunt of the particles.

Crews of up to eight technicians would dig four holes within a two-foot radius and blend each property’s samples in special jars from flat yards uncluttered by plants, trees and free of cement layers.

The six-inch holes will be replenished with clean soil, and covered with similar grass if the yards require it, a process that would take one hour and will follow COVID-19 sanitary protocols of face covering, glove wearing and social distancing.

Ultimately, the chosen properties would be distanced from others within the targeted neighborhoods to avoid picking up samples from clustered lots that would not offer a precise measure of heavy metals present through the area, Mitguard said.

“Nobody wanted to drive to sign the access agreements here. We are doing everything we can to reach out,” Mitguard said at the fenced lot found at the corner of Santa Fe and Broadway Avenues.

In addition, Talamantes explained that Spanish-speaking residents contacted to fill out the access agreements were receptive and nobody showed fear or concerns about the process.

“For the most part, I would say most people who speak Spanish had been open to the soil sampling idea,” Talamantes said.

Mitguard said he expects the outreach and signing phase would wrap up no later than May, with sampling collection slated to begin this summer, possibly in June.

“We had in our car a machine ready to copy signed agreements, and give the residents a copy to keep,” Mitguard said. “Some residents turned their access agreements immediately to us and didn’t have to mail them out in an envelope.”

Central Metal Inc. closed shop in 2016 following years of recycling metals from sites in South Los Angeles, shipping collected scrap for repurposing to companies in Asia.

The plant’s former CEO and owner Jong Uk Byum filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020, and the site was put up for sale as part of a process to cover the debtor’s financial liabilities with claimants and creditors.

During bankruptcy proceedings last December, the industrial lot was valued at $31 million. A company registered as Thor the Stalking Horse PSA deposited $2 million to begin bidding.

Hyundai Motors was recognized by the court as another qualified bidder after it filed a claim against Uk Byum for $27.5 million.

 

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