By Alfredo Santana
LOS ANGELES — Angry residents unleashed criticism on the state Department of Toxic Substances Control during an online gathering for lax soil cleanups after findings from a USC study concluded many treated properties still have hazardous lead levels from the former Exide battery plant in Vernon.
Results of the study, conducted in coordination with researchers from Occidental College and reported by the Los Angeles Times, prompted state and federal officials to push for federal intervention to designate a Superfund site and remediate contamination in homes within a 1.7-mile radius of the closed battery recycling plant.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the study titled “Get The Lead Out” documented that 73 of 93 properties already cleaned from lead particles contained concentrations above the state’s health threshold of 80 parts per million.
It also reported that 22 houses had samples with 400 or more parts per million, in violation of federal limits.
Furthermore, the report found that more than 500 of 3,370 cleaned parcels did not meet the state’s guidelines to dig out tainted soil until lead pollution measured less than 80 parts per million, or to excavate up to 18 inches.
Meredith Williams, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said at the outset that it is impossible to remove all contamination in some properties to protect water, sewage, gas pipelines, cisterns and electrical wiring. “We have to protect underground features, like wires or structural items like foundations,” Williams said. “We recognize that we haven’t have been clear enough with what this means, and we vow to do better.”
At previous meetings, construction engineers and soil removal experts had said that structures like walls and fences on homes perched on hillsides and built along slopes were at risk of collapsing if cleanup crews dug down to meet the state guidelines.
Also, cutting tree roots would weaken them, eventually causing them to topple or wilt, they said.
An area resident who identified himself simply as Tommy described the cleanup process as “shameful,” and pushed the agency to be more transparent and to start an ad campaign to keep households informed about how the cleanups are done.
“Shame on all of those that were working,” said Tommy, who said he lost a family member from exposure to harmful substances. “Please bring new people to work here. Please help us bring that trust.” Boyle Heights resident Veta Gashgai said that despite the plant’s closure nearly eight years ago and the legacy of pollution inherited by residents in Maywood, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Bell and Huntington Park, many people are unaware of the cleanups and the role the state, contractors and cleanup crews play.
Gashgai, who said she, alongside area residents organizes cleanings under the intersections of the Golden State (5) and Pomona (60) freeways, has chatted with physicians at nearby White Memorial Medical Center, who ignore why it is important to conduct blood tests to detect lead.
“We need information because we have members in the community who don’t know anything about Exide,” Gashgai said.
On the other hand, some cleanup workers called in to defend the decontamination efforts, and even commended National Environmental Engineering Group, the current cleanup contractor, for abiding by labor rules.
Jose Montellano, a former employee with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, chastised criticism levied against cleanup crews as unfair, and said they often go beyond their duties to reach out to residents impacted by the soil cleanups.
“We are in the frontline,” Montellano said. “We tell [residents] after owners ask what we did, when we did it and what we are doing. We are cleaning up the contaminated area. I talk to the community in Spanish. Most are Spanish speakers. I speak to interpret them.”
He said installing billboards that inform residents about ongoing cleanups is a good idea, but most affected dwellers like to get acquainted in person.
Another crew worker who did not provide his name, said his team is tired of being slandered by people and institutions that lack understanding how they approach the cleanups.
“There are some aspects in the cleanups that we can get to eventually,” he said. “There is oversight and some stuff we cannot take out.”
Mark Lopez, an Eastside community organizer and special projects coordinator with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, blamed staff at the Department of Toxic Substances Control for misinforming the community after someone said the agency conducted soil samples at a lot four miles away from the Exide plant.
He accused Mehdi Bettahar, the assistant deputy director of the agency, of nepotism, and said the Feb. 23 zoom update was “the worst community meeting” he has attended.
“The [Department of Toxic Substances Control] has consistently tried to limit its liability,” said Lopez, in reference to the agency’s history of extending permits to Exide despite its violations of environmental laws for releasing plumes of lead into the air.
Lopez said that he recently spoke with a resident whose sugarcanes were not cut as part of soil cleaning, thus endangering anyone who may peel to eat them.
Williams responded that for the agency to hold anyone accountable it needs to have access to all related information.
Williams referred to a letter dated on Feb. 17 she mailed to Jill Johnson, the USC professor who led the Get The Lead Out study, requesting her and the university to share its results and methodology.
The letter was forwarded to Occidental College Bhavana Shamasunder, associate professor and chair of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College, and to Lopez.
Todd Sax, deputy director of site mitigation and restoration with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said that he doesn’t know if USC will share the study.
“I think you have to ask USC that question,” said Sax, who has a doctorate in environmental science and engineering from UCLA. “As a scientist, I’m going to try to be as transparent as possible and to try to enhance that even more, because we respect the community and we respect science,”