By Alfredo Santana
BOYLE HEIGHTS — An advisory board member and residents attending a virtual conference on community cleanups near the former Exide Technologies site have asked officials of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control leaders to meet with and update affected residents in person at two large residential complexes to generate trust.
In the two-hour meeting Nov. 18, Exide Technologies Advisory Group co-chair Mark Lopez told the audience that he recently visited residents of the Wyvernwood Gardens Apartments and Estrada Courts and found they are concerned about water leaks occurring while crews remove up to 18 inches of soil loaded with lead and toxic metals from the former battery plant in nearby Vernon.
Lopez said most residents are not on site during cleanups, but bear the brunt of stepping on mud mixed with metals seeping from uncovered excavated lawns and recreational areas to remove polluted soil and carry it into their homes.
The muddy runoffs spill to walkways and parking lots, Lopez said
Knocking on doors, Lopez said he witnessed that children often play near, or on top of open trenches where yellow metal fences do little to keep them away. Adults are afraid of contaminating indoor dwellings.
Although he recognized that workers from the community are proud of being part of the cleanup crews and for their labor contribution to decontaminate parcels in East Los Angeles, Maywood, Commerce, Huntington Park, Bell and Boyle Heights, a rash of mistreatments from bosses and a recent violent incident involving two employees have soured relationships with the latest contractor.
Pete Reyes, a former cleanup worker who became the latest member of the advisory group, said the manager’s brother from the firm National Engineering Consulting Group, or NEC, fired him because he raised concerns of unfair treatment to crew members.
NEC is the current contractor in charge of toxic soil removal and ground replenishment at Wyvernwood Gardens Apartments and Estrada Courts.
The Exide Technologies Advisory Group is also composed of Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Director Meredith Williams and Lopez.
Reyes said he had been laid off three times by previous contractors, but did not say why. Local employees trained for the job at Los Angeles Trade Tech College have accused their bosses of making derogatory ethnic comments, and for portraying their hiring as doing them a favor.
“Some of my partners were targeted,” Reyes said. “There was time to speak up, I know how it is. I have been commended by day laborers and others. We don’t want to create drama or problems, but we definitely want things to be done right.”
Department of Toxic Substances Control Assistant Director Mehdi Bettahar said he has visited the apartments three or four times after cleanup started this summer and pledged to hold in-person meetings more often to gather feedback from local residents and cleanup crews.
Bettahar underscored that the scuffle on Oct. 13 involving two workers is being investigated by police, a labor union and the environmental cleaning company.
“DTSC wants to make clear that no bullying or violence will be tolerated,” Bettahar said. “If another [incident] occurs, they will be fired, or the contractors will [fire them]. We are following up with the investigation by the union, contractors and community representatives to prevent any form or violence.”
Bettahar said a water pipe at Wyvernwood Gardens broke during cleanup efforts due to age, and not because work crews hit it. Bettahar said the cleanup should not disrupt water supply, and committed to solve any issues immediately.
On the financial side, Bettahar said that as of Nov. 5, $245.2 million has been spent on cleaning 3,049 property parcels, and $5.9 million remain from the initial allocations set forth by former Gov. Jerry Brown.
In his 2021-22 state budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom added $322.4 million more to pay for cleanup of up to 10,000 properties. However, environmental leaders have said that the money may not be enough to cleanse all remaining properties with high levels of lead and arsenic.
All schools, parks and 78 child day care centers within a 1.7-mile radius of the battery recycling plant has been cleaned. Bettahar congratulated residents, neighbors and workers for their efforts in reaching that milestone despite facing the odds of a grueling pandemic for nearly two years.
Peter Rutten, senior engineering geologist with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said 333 units qualified for soil removal and replenishment at the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, and 141 had been decontaminated as of Nov. 5.
At nearby Estrada Courts, a g 28-acre apartment property east of Wyvernwood Apartments, 69 units were identified for cleaning, with six fully cleaned.
“Our goal is to finish and clean [both properties] by the end of this year,” Rutten said.
At least 8,647 parcels have been sampled for lead and other toxic residues dumped by at least six smokestacks the Exide plant had since it opened in 1922. Rutten said 1,513 properties are still missing due to lack of permits to collect soil.
Newsom’s fresh funds triggered the mailing of notices to 2,089 additional properties that qualified for sampling, with 837 already secured for access. Of the latter, crews have obtained soil samples from 62.
Echoing Bettahar’s remarks, Meredith Williams said she has postponed traveling from Sacramento to mitigation projects due to fears of being exposed to COVID-19, but vowed to meet with residents and stakeholders in person.
She encouraged everyone involved to get out and share the news of the cleanup efforts.
“I’ve been reluctant to do so, but I think the time has come to go out there and hit the ground,” Williams said.
Lopez, also the special projects coordinator with the nonprofit East Yards Community for Environmental Justice, welcomed the commitment of the state’s environmental leaders to meet with residents who feel they have long been treated as outcasts in their own neighborhoods.
He warned NEC and its two subcontractors to improve relationships with workers and residents or face corrective consequences.
“If there is zero engagement, that is a red flag,” Lopez said. “If there is engagement, that is good. We want that. We are not where we were, but we are constantly pushing to where we want to be.”