Exide cleanup crews seek more state protections

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

VERNON — As the state Department of Toxic Substances Control conducted bids for companies seeking to do soil cleanups in nearly 3,000 more properties affected by the closed Exide Technologies plant, environmental activists and a former cleanup worker pushed the state agency to modify labor contracts.

Speaking on his behalf and that of other employees, former cleanup member Pete Reyes pressed Grant Cope, deputy director at the Department of Toxic Substances Control, to amend labor contracts that currently allow contractors to fire certified environmental cleanup employees without cause or notice.

Reyes explained that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last summer, he and others were laid off because homeowners and residents refused to let crews into their properties as infections spiked and businesses complied with temporary shutdowns.

He requested to add a clause that calls for a two-week notice of dismissal if works slows, or when companies prepare to wrap area cleanups. Reyes told Grant to follow up with unlawful terminations investigations being conducted by unions.

Recently, Reyes alleged he was fired by National Engineering Consulting Group, the current cleanup contractor, because he complained about conditions at the worksites.

The push to amend hiring contracts ads to a series of complaints against previous contractors as well as the current environmental contractor for racist remarks against Latinos and Native Americans hired to remove polluted soil from properties near the former battery plant, and for harboring a negative work culture.

At the Exide cleanup web portal, the state agency announced that more than 70 workers had graduated from the Workforce Environmental Restoration in Communities program, or WERC, conducted by Los Angeles Trade Tech College and three other partners, and had been hired by various contractors since its inception in 2016.

Companies engaged in the cleanups are required to hire WERC graduates as part of an agreement to provide jobs to trained and certified area blue collar residents hit by the brunt of the contamination.

Cope, an attorney who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2019, and for the U.S Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, pledged to look into the matter, and advance additional protections to blue-collar cleanup workers in the next round of environmental restorations.

“I think your voice is important,” Cope said at a recent meeting. “During the pandemic there weren’t many people wanting their perimeter cleaned up.”

In California, the 15-day termination notices work both ways. Usually, companies can ask employees to notify them of their intentions to quit with advance if that is internal policy, so managers can adjust to the employee’s departure, said attorney Kyle D. Smith on his website www.worklawyers.com.

Smith said California is an at-will employment state, meaning employers can lay off their employees at any time. Similarly, at-will employees can pack up and leave at any time, without telling the employer of their intentions.

“If neither the employment contract or any company policy requires the employee to give notice, no notice is legally required under California law,” Smith wrote. “At-will employers can fire their employees at any time.”

Since the lead cleanups are being paid for with public funds, Reyes and others expect the state to leverage contract components that give them room to maneuver and find legal defense before they lose their jobs, or to search for another employer.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear. The area’s environmental activists are unhappy with the way the National Engineering Consulting Group has dealt with field staff and past employees.

“I think what managers [at National Engineering] have done to workers is enough to not rehire that company,” said Mark Lopez, the special projects coordinator with East Yards Community for Environmental Justice and co-chair of the Exide Technologies Advisory Group. “I’ve talked to folks and there is a sense that the current contractor has gone too far.”

Gary DellaVecchia, director of construction at National Engineering Consulting Group, said he is bound by the firm’s contract with the Department of Toxic Substances Control to refer media and community inquiries to information officer Barbara Zumwalt, and cannot comment on issues surrounding the Exide cleanups.

“It has nothing to do with me,” Della Vecchia said. “I’m biting my tongue to say something, But unfortunately it’s not my call.”

Another controversial issue arose when the plastic fences erected to keep residents and pets off the landscaped soils at Wyvernwood Garden Apartments and at Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights did not work as expected.

Lopez added that the fences separating walking paths from the worksites, some with heavy industrial machinery and crushed sprinklers pipes, do little to prevent children and pets from trickling into the opened trenches.

Hiring two new companies engaged in environmental restoration will be expensive. The decision to gather preliminary information from potential contractors and subcontractors was announced a month later following the $322.4 million money allocation by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2021-22 state budget to continue residential cleanups in lead polluted areas.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control gathered information from interested parties to continue with environmental cleanings on the Cal eProcure website Aug. 20, and closed it Sept. 3.

Cal eProcure is California’s marketplace for a wide range of funded projects from all its agencies. The latest chapter on the lead removal project affecting properties in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Bell, Maywood and Huntington Park was christened the Exide Residential Cleanup Procurement.

Newsom’s funding is the largest public expenditure approved for the Exide’s residential cleanups. The latest financial round bolsters an almost depleted budget of $251 million approved by former Gov. Jerry Brown that covered removal of lead soil and replenishment of 3,200 properties.

With the new funds, the state’s environmental agency plans to mitigate 3,000 new properties within a 1.7-mile radius of the industrial plant, and forecast they will finish the overwhelming task by March 2025.

The two new contractors would be assigned to detoxify 2,000 parcels.

A total of 10,000 plots have been identified to contain troublesome lead levels that may have caused cancer, asthma, and other life-threatening diseases to hundreds of residents. About 8,500 parcels have been tested for lead, arsenic and other toxic metals.

Furthermore, Newsom funneled $132 million more to keep decontamination and deconstruction work at the Exide plant under the current management of a trust appointed by a bankruptcy judge in 2020, and the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency.

With the new funds, the state’s agency said that it projects to have full lead cleanups at 5,940 parcels by March 31, 2025, and that it is currently removing and replacing tainted soil at the rate of 80 homes a month.