By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — After a yearlong recess caused by mandated shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Los Angeles County Development Authority has resumed work to clean high levels of lead particles detected in paint inside and outside of 200 homes built near the former Exide Technologies battery recycling plant.
Ken Lee, acting manager of the construction management unit for the Los Angeles County Development Authority, said houses inhabited by mostly blue-collar residents would be cleaned of hazards caused by lead-based paint within the 1.7-mile residential area of the now-closed plant.
Lee said his agency had completed the remediation work in four homes when the safety orders resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic placed a halt to all home cleanups, but it recently restarted activities consistent with protocols set forth by local, state and federal agencies.
“We are re-engaging homeowner applicants, contractors and environmental consultants to gradually resume full program activities,” Lee said.
However, an operator with the authority said the agency already closed the application period to screen lead levels in houses polluted by Exide.
Two county funding sources had been identified to cover the costs of running lead tests and removing lead-based paint in homes near the Exide facility.
In 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a $3.4 million block grant to serve 180 homes impacted by lead-based paint in Los Angeles, including 80 built inside the area surrounding the Exide plant.
The second stemmed from a July 2019 class-action lawsuit filed by several California counties and municipalities against the Sherwin-Williams Company, ConAgra Grocery Products Company, and NL Industries Inc. for remediation of lead paint hazards in residential housing.
The three defendants had to pay a total of $305 million, with an allocation to Los Angeles County worth $134 million. With the money, the county spearheaded a lead paint hazard mitigation program that called for testing, removal and replacement of lead paint found indoors in at least 4,000 homes.
Each home test and cleaning has an average cost of $19,000. The impacted dwellings are located in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Bell, Maywood and Huntington Park.
Cleanups include the replacement of chipping and peeling paint, the installation of new windows and doors replacing those damaged and repairs of items and surfaces with hazardous lead levels.
Lee, who started working on the Exide home cleanup project two years ago, said the program was launched in 2018, and the process to receive applications for testing lead particles in homes began in 2019.
The job of testing and removing lead found in crackling paint on the interior and exterior of homes near the former battery recycling plant began in January 2020, but screeched to a halt three months later when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“Both interior and exterior surfaces or components that test positive for [lead-based paint] beyond the acceptable level and present a hazard due to a peeling and chipping condition will be scraped and encapsulated,” Lee said. “Any friction surfaces, typically doors, windows and their frames, testing positive for [lead-based paint] beyond the acceptable level will either be stripped to the bare wood surface and painted or replaced entirely.”
As of December 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency defined new safety levels of lead in paint at 10 micrograms of lead in dust per square foot for floor dust and 100 micrograms per square foot for window sills after lead removal work.
Before the pandemic-induced closures, an initial test to detect indoor and exterior lead took about two hours. The so-called “remediation activities” require lead-certified contractors to implement practices that prevent the spread of airborne lead particles, Lee said.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the county authority expects that some participants may be hesitant to allow the testing technicians and remediation contractors into their homes, especially those residents who have yet to receive vaccinations.
Lee confirmed that crews are halfway through the process of remediating the lead-based paint hazards in the pilot group of eight homes located near the plant. Exide Technologies recycled up to 11 million lead-based batteries a year before it was shut down in 2015, as part of a bankruptcy settlement that freed its former owners from criminal environmental charges.
Paulina Medina, a Boyle Heights resident whose front yard lawn was cleaned from lead and other toxic metals from the Exide facility, said she did not know about the free program to remove lead found in her home and none of her neighbors were aware of it.
“I’d like to see if I can apply and get a free test to screen the lead levels inside the house,” said the mother of four children on May 2.
A flyer found on the county’s website indicates that homes built before 1978 in areas impacted by Exide where one or more 6-year-old children live with already cleaned soil qualified for free tests and repairs if lead-based paint levels were rendered dangerous.
After the class-action litigation, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the 2019 settlement provided resources to clean lead-based hazards in thousands of homes scattered across the county.
“All our children deserve to live in homes and communities that are free of environmental hazards,” Ferrer said. “Our lead paint hazard mitigation program offers low-income families with small children a chance to eliminate exposure to lead paint hazards.”
Following a bankruptcy procedure in 2020, investment firm Atlas Holdings snapped Exide Technologies in auction for $178.6 million on July 23.
The company bailed out from the chaotic environmental case after it agreed to pay $11.16 million to create an independent trust fund supervised by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, with the objective to dismantle and clean the site.
Exide did not contribute any money to the residential cleanups of ead detected in outdoor grounds, parkways and homes.
Burdened with complaints of inaction and environmental racism from sick and injured residents, the state allocated two budgets, one for $176.6 million plus another of $251.1 million in public funds to conduct the most expensive environmental cleanup in California history, and mitigate 3,200 properties.
An additional request from four area state legislators for $540.4 million to carry cleanings in 6,800 additional properties awaits its fate in the Capitol, and will require Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
Atlas Holdings split Exide’s assets into two independent companies, Stryten Manufacturing and Element Resources, another recycler of lead batteries. Exide Technologies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy three times since 2000.
“We are resuming gradually, updating documentation, and revisiting our applicant homes with our contractors in an effort to pick-up where we left off a year ago,” Lee said.
He estimated that the slated cleanups would take from five to eight months.