By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Residents living near the former Exide Technologies battery recycling plant berated staff from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control officials for allegedly approving an expensive cleanup plan that prioritizes cleanup of yards and attics with high lead levels while skipping homes with less concentrations.
At a 2 ½ hour online community hearing held May 13 to offer cleanup updates at properties within 1.7 miles from the smelter at the closed facility in Vernon, environmental officials said 2,500 houses have been fully decontaminated from lead and arsenic, and said the plan follows a logic backed by science.
Grant Cope, deputy director of the site mitigation and restoration program for the department, welcomed Zoom and phone callers and said the department has posted online responses to comments related to the criteria adopted to select properties highly polluted by airborne lead particles dumped for decades and encouraged residents to read them.
Cope explained the mitigation plan has dwindling resources to conduct cleanups that can range from $60,000 to $80,000 per house, and focuses on properties with lead levels overly hazardous to residents.
“We are cleaning properties with higher levels of lead, and going to clean those with lower levels of lead,” Cope said. “We understand it affects issues of scale, but those are the priorities.”
Residents criticized the decontamination program as riddled with overrun costs, and said it fails to bring relief to all properties polluted by Exide.
“As long as people continue to live there, there’s going to continue to be loss of life, loss of property value,” and diminished quality of life, complained area resident Joe Gonzalez. “Your plan is not really good. You could have done it more efficiently.”
A case in point, Gonzalez said, is a home built behind his property that was cleaned but his had been barely touched by sampling crews.
Cope, an environmental law attorney who worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, said he wants to hear stakeholders to find out how community cleanups evolve and to address allegations about disrespect shown from cleaning crews and soil sampling staff to home owners.
Mehdi Bettahar, division chief for residential and parkway cleanup with the state department, confirmed the department is on schedule to decontaminate 3,200 properties by year’s end at a cost of $251.1 million.
Bettahar said so far the department has spent $198.9 million cleaning outdoor yards, with 87% of it invested in soil removal and replenishing, 8% on soil sampling and 4% in delivering and measuring project quality.
In response to complaints from two crew workers and area residents who claimed they experienced lax safety protocols to shield from COVID-19 contagion, Bettahar said the department provided gloves, face masks and encouraged social distancing when the cleanings restarted amid the pandemic last summer.
Teams with a maximum of five cleanup workers work at a time. He said that a new public comments period for parkways cleanings started May 7, and will run until June 15.
“In total, we have 29 crews actually in the field,” Bettahar said. “We had only a few positive cases. The good news is the measures we implemented have been very effective preventing a higher number of cases.”
Bettahar added that from a $6.5 million budget allocated for parkways mitigation, $2.9 million already was spent. Of the total, $3.6 million could be reverted, but did not say what agency, if any, would receive the funds.
Lead removal from parkways is scheduled to finish this fall, he said.
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice representative Mark Lopez blasted state officials for postponing cleanings on houses built on hill slopes and with shapes that push up costs, and vowed to keep fighting until all affected properties are decontaminated.
“This is Exide’s poison,” Lopez said. “If it wasn’t for Exide, we wouldn’t need to clean every property that needs to be cleaned up. I feel we need to clean every property that needs it, and make sure this does not happen again.”
In response, Bettahar explained that geothermic issues can cause homes to collapse if digging starts without due diligence, and said engineers have visited those properties to ensure the safety of houses and residents.
Cope denied setting caps on cleanup costs, and pledged that as long as there are funds available “we will do the cleanups at whatever level is necessary.”
Properties in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, city of Commerce, Maywood, Huntington Park and Bell were blanketed with lead particles since the battery recycling facility opened in 1922.
From 2001 to 2015, the plant operated with temporary permits, allowing it to dodge environmental standards in what neighbors called a cozy relationship between former Exide executives and Department of Toxic Substances Control officials.
About 10,000 homes, schools, child care centers and parks received the brunt of the emissions, causing area residents to develop cancer, asthma and other illnesses.
On the Exide’s recycling plant front, Vernon Environmental Response Trustee Roberto Puga said cleanup work of segment 2 has been completed, a new asphalt coat now covers the ground, and 240 tons of solid waste was discarded.
“We have completed a small portion of segment 3,” Puga said. “Stacks have to be removed, and we are working with [local, state and federal] agencies to get the permits and ensure the job is done in a safer manner.”
He said $8.6 million of the $11.16 million deposited in the trust fund account following Exide’s bankruptcy settlement last October had been spent, and underscored that air quality and toxic substances inspectors measure daily emissions with pressure monitors.
The agreement for the Vernon Environmental Response Trust between the U.S Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Exide Technologies allocated Puga a payment of $25,000 for the job incurred in leading the corporation, actions taken to conduct environmental work and for the preparation of a budget 120 days before decontamination activities started at the recycling plant.
Amanda Cruz, the EPA physical scientist assigned to supervise the trust, said five smaller buildings have been boarded up due to a projected lack of funds to dismember them, and noted a pause on cleanup operations while new permits required by the South Coast Air Quality Management District are processed.
Cruz also announced the withdrawal of two potential buyers because they showed no interest in the facility as it currently stands.
However, she underscored that the EPA’s “main priority of the trust is to decontaminate and deconstruct the property” by December.
Although Cruz said EPA managers and engineers would not discuss how much more money it will take to remove and tear down all structures from the plant, Cope floated a $145 million figure if lead is detected at the site’s foundations, plus oversight and compliance expenses to meet all regulations.
Area state legislators have requested the allocation of $540 million more to continue cleanups in 6,800 additional properties and last December California sued former plant owners and operators for $136.5 million plus legal fees in the U.S. Central District Court to recover cleanup costs.
The state’s attorney general cited federal law he said applies to Superfund sites cleanups.
Alfredo Santana is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Southeast Los Angeles County area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.