By Alfredo Santana
WALNUT PARK — The Environmental Protection Agency will conduct soil samples tests in two neighborhoods near the closed Central Metal site this year in search of elevated quantities of lead and arsenic.
Sampling properties are located west of Alameda Street and east of Santa Fe Avenue, near the former metal recycling plant at 8201 Santa Fe Ave. in unincorporated Walnut Park in Southeast Los Angeles.
Julia Giarmoleo, EPA’s region 9 press officer, said in a email that the agency plans to conduct soil tests on 60 properties to measure excessive lead and arsenic levels and determine if contamination can be reasonably attributed to the Central Metal site.
Initially, the agency planned to soil test 75 parcels.
“As part of the effort to get permission to access these properties, EPA and its contractors plan to do door-to-door outreach in the next couple months to speak with residents about this effort,” Giarmoleo wrote.
Testing will be booked when access agreements are mailed out, signed by the lot owners and tenants, and returned to the agency.
Housing test locations and dates will be conducted in coordination with the county’s Department of Public Health free of charge to the participants.
The soil testing confirmation arrives as a unit of U-Haul truck and trailer rent and storage sets up shop at the former recycling plant, with two banners displaying its brand name at the office.
Central Metal ceased operations in 2016 after years of booming business for recycling hubs in South and Central Los Angeles, shipping discarded metal to factories in Asia for repurposing.
After years of community complaints that blamed the business for obnoxious smells, the EPA started an investigation in 2018 in search of metals that endangered people and to measure toxicity levels in soil and groundwater.
The investigation took a dramatic turn in 2019, when the Los Angeles County Fire Department reported a waste pile containing lead and arsenic wrapped for disposal. Similar piles stashed outdoors had been detected before.
Central Metal owner Jong Uk Byum filed for bankruptcy and the industrial site was put up for sale last year for $31 million. A company named Thor The Stalking Horse PSA made a bid and deposited $2 million to purchase the property.
After the facility closed, the lot was leased to Fleet Yards Inc., a company that offers storage room for trucks, construction equipment and cargo containers.
Thor asked the bankruptcy judge to cancel the rental contract with Fleet Yards if the court approved its purchase bid.
Hyundai Motors was deemed another qualified bidder due to a previous claim filed against Uk Byum for $27.5 million.
Rossmery Zayas, Communities for a Better Environment lead person on the cleanup efforts, said a timetable to start residential soil testing will be discussed Feb. 16 with EPA representatives and staff from U.S. Rep. Nannete Diaz Barragan.
Topics to be addressed will include sampling methods, criteria to choose properties for lead soil testing and whether exposed apartment buildings without yards could be tested for toxic metals.
The EPA had projected to run soil tests on property yards to gauge lead levels before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the project, said Zayas, also a youth organizer in Southeast Los Angeles.
“We had a lot of community mobilization pre-COVID. There were a lot of meetings. But we knew that after the plant was shut down, there was a lot of work to do,” Zayas said.
Soil testing will be carried out in two residential neighborhoods where winds may have dumped metal particles from the defunct recycling operation.
The first is in Walnut Park starting on Croesus Avenue on the east, moving west to 81st Street, veering one block north to Lou Dillon Avenue and then turning westbound on Alix Avenue.
The boundary line shifts south on Grape Street, continues half a block beyond 83rd Street, and turns east to intersect Lou Dillon Avenue, closing the loop heading north at 83rd Street.
The second neighborhood is located east of Santa Fe Avenue and encompasses properties in South Gate and Huntington Park.
Housing is located north of Cass Place, bordering Santa Fe Avenue to the west and Santa Ana Street to the north.
Drawings available at the EPA’s website indicate the sampling area excludes properties west of Santa Ana Street abutting Santa Fe Avenue. The boundary takes a shape of three stair steps until it reaches Broadway Avenue.
The targeted area abuts Long Beach Boulevard to the east, but it excludes all commercial properties facing that street.
Chosen properties should expect crews of eight technicians to dig holes in different spots from four to six inches deep, with the samples deposited into jars.
Those containers will be shipped to a lab to get screened for lead, arsenic and other toxins that can cause cancer, respiratory and skin disorders and poison pets.
Ground holes will be replenished with clean soil and grass removed will be replaced with similar sod.
The agency projects that each sampling collection will last about one hour, and warned that all health and safety COVID-19 protocols will be followed to avert risks of virus spread.
EPA officials said data collected from residents will not be shared with anyone outside the agency, or be included in reports.
Zayas said the Feb. 16 gathering will help residents understand what is going on at the Central Metal site.
“Community members are still to be reached out. I think they still need to know what needs to happen. They need to clarify some technical issues,” Zayas said.
If excessive lead particle loads are found, the EPA may create a Superfund site, clean it up with resources from another program, or determine if it should be passed on to the state of California for follow up.
Soil cleanups can turn expensive. Properties being cleaned near the former Exide Technologies plant in Vernon cost from $50,000 to $80,000 each.
The variation in costs is due to properties’ location along streets with slopes, and structures perched upon surfaces that may crumble or become unstable if the ground is loosened and replenished.
Local residents started a string of complaints for toxic smells from Central Metal in the early 2000s. County investigations found violations of illegal storage of hazardous waste, failure to minimize hazards and unpermitted expansion of operations.
In December, the county approved a Green Zones program for 27 lots in the unincorporated communities of Walnut Park and City Terrace, and changed land zoning for 14 former industrial properties.
Zayas expects those designations would improve the area’s air quality by removing industrial polluters operating near schools.
Last summer, EPA Director Michael Regan and Diaz Barragan visited the industrial plant in Southeast Los Angeles and gathered local residents’ accounts of the environmental and health mishaps the aging facility allegedly wrought onto the working-class communities.
The EPA indicated that residents willing to participate in the soil testing effort can contact the project’s community involvement coordinator and sign in.