By Alfredo Santana
BOYLE HEIGHTS — In 2012, Carlos Medina and his wife bought a small craftsman house with a green front lawn in the 1100 block of Calada Street, steps away from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway and settled down to raise four children a mile north of the former Exide Technologies battery recycling smelter.
When escrow closed, nobody told Medina the front yard and the house’s parkway — the grassy strip of land between the curbside and the sidewalk — were at the center of a huge environmental squabble following decades-long releases of toxic fumes with lead particles that landed on homes and surfaces within a 1.7-mile radius from the plant in Vernon.
Four month ago, crews hired by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control cleaned Medina’s front yard, removing soil containing lead, arsenic and other toxins. Soon after, patches of bare soil were covered by grass and now his children play on the lawn with toys dotting the landscape.
However, nobody touches the still contaminated parkway, featuring bald spots and pale grass stretching along the hardened soil.
“[The cleanup crews] came and took parkway samples. But they also said they are city property and were not liable for that property,” Medina said.
The parkway cleanup and the slow pace to approve plans and funds to do the job are the latest chapter that links Exide’s environmental disaster to 6,425 soil strips scattered among residential locations in Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce, Bell and East Los Angeles.
Amid boiling anger from residents who accused former Exide owners of bailing out of environmental liabilities to clean lead from 10,000 homes following a bankruptcy settlement last October, the Department of Toxic Substances Control recently conducted two public gatherings to inform stakeholders about the investigations and risk assessments to eventual parkway cleanings.
Parkways Project manager Duane White summarized that the agency has conducted more than 300 online surveys, with results that indicate residents “spend up to two hours a day, seven days a week, on the parkways.”
White said the cleanup project is at phase two out of four scheduled segments for public comments and the next step would be to conduct a feasibility study, followed by a draft cleanup plan in line with the mandate issued by the California Environmental Quality Act.
Soil sampling from 8,124 parkways took place in 2019 over a nearly six-month period between May and November, with locations tested for carcinogenic metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and non-carcinogenic ones like copper, zinc and antimony.
“Lead concentrations are highest near the surface and decrease rapidly with depth,” White said. The investigation did not correlate parkway pollutants with those of adjacent properties, such as front lawns split by sidewalks.
The experts conducting the parkway public hearing counted 6,425 potential sites with unsafe lead levels, but did not mention how much it would cost to decontaminate them.
Shukla Roy-Semmen, a senior toxicologist with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said most locations measured 80 parts per million, or 80 milligrams of lead and above per kilogram of soil, while 240 had arsenic with 12 or more parts per million. Lead levels above 318 parts per million were identified in 899 parkways.
At a web hearing held last year, property project manager Suhamasi Patel said the Department of Toxic Substances Control raised the cleaning threshold to 300 parts of lead per million due to limited funds, but confirmed the starting cumulative amount still was 80 parts per million.
Decades of nearly unabated toxic releases from the plant’s chimneys prompted state lawmakers in May 2018 to approve $16 million for parkways testing and cleaning. Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis heralded the allocation as a win for First District communities.
“Residents, including many children, track dirt into their homes by walking through the parkways,” Solis said at the time. “Ensuring that these parkways are clean of Exide lead is an essential piece of our comprehensive cleanup plan.”
That figure came in addition to $176.6 million California allocated the same year to decontaminate 3,200 properties from hazardous materials from the battery recycling plant’s 93 years of operation that began in 1922.
A total of $251.1 million in public funds has been approved to continue with residential and property cleanups, while on Feb. 18 four area state legislators requested a budget allocation of $540.4 million to finish cleaning the excluded properties.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a motion to seek legal remedies against Exide Technologies to fund cleanups caused by the harmful metals emitted from the plant. At its peak, the battery plant recycled 11 million units a year.
Father John Moretta, a priest at Resurrection Catholic Church and a leader with the Lead-Free Communities Coalition in Boyle Heights, said poorer communities of color historically bear the brunt of massive polluters like Exide, and cleaning contaminated parkways should be done in sync with front-yard cleanups to save public money.
“The point is when is it they are going to do it?” Moretta asked. “The very first house cleanup was across [from the church] on Lorena and Opal Streets, yet the parkway was a mess. There was dirt all over the place. That was a cheap cleanup, but there are cheaper ways to do them.”
After meetings held once or twice a month in the last five years, Moretta suggested people in the community are tired of talks and deserve substantial cleanups the state is now on the hook for.
For his part, Medina said he does not want a repeat of a verbal wrangling that ensued following discrepancies with cleaning crews over what agency is responsible for decontaminating the nearly 30-foot strip of land in front of his house, and for damages caused during yard cleanups.
“When the crews came to cleanup the lawn, they broke the water pipes and we did not have water [while] they were excavating,” he said. “We contacted the DTSC, and it was a hassle. We went back and forth over the phone, but eventually they repaired them. It was an argument over who was responsible and who did it. I was not the one picking up the dirt.”
The Boyle Heights resident said his six-year-old St. Bernard dog died six months ago of a mysterious disease, and he could not get an autopsy due to COVID-19 restrictions. He suspects overexposure to lead absorbed through the pets’ paws could be to blame.
Following its latest bankruptcy settlement, Exide Technologies relinquished ownership of the plant and funded a $11.16 million trust fund operated by a court-appointed trustee to cleanup and dismember structures at the former recycling site. The legal outcome did not allocate money for residential or community cleanups.
Area parkways are between four to five feet wide, and run from five to 40 feet in length. Usually they have grass on their surface, but trees, cactuses, and other plants are often nourished and gardened by residents, even though many had been planted by the various municipalities.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency defines a lead hazard as bare soil on residential real property or on the property occupied by children with lead equal to or exceeding 400 parts per million in a play area, and recommends that adults prevent children from touching soil in areas reaching 100 parts per million, due to the children’s propensity to touch their faces with dirty bare hands.