By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Making the Exide Technologies cleanup perimeter part of the national Superfund would take from one to two years and no additional funds would be available to expand lead removal from industrial yards until then, according to project managers with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Comprised of the shuttered battery recycling plant plus 10,000 parcels polluted with lead, the 1.7-mile radius cannot conduct more lead cleaning tasks now, Edwin Poalinelli, Region 9 section manager with the Environmental Protection Agency told people at a community hearing that designating Exide a Superfund site would require must an assessment as part of the agency’s hazard-ranking system to measure groundwater pollution, surface water, soil exposure and air.
Any of the four paths graded at 28.50 points or above capped at 100 points can qualify the cleanup area for the Superfund’s National Priority List, pending an EPA review for approval. Then the process would move to the state for concurrence.
The new Superfund’s notice would be published in the Federal Register for addition to the list, followed by a 60-day period for public comment and a response from the environmental agency.
A last step would confirm the designation with publication of a federal registry notice in the final National Priority List.
Reaching the Superfund designation, a goal state environmental leaders hope to achieve, can stream hundreds of millions of dollars in federal resources to complete the environmental cleanups being conducted and supervised by the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
“I expect the state will request to test the surrounding [industrial] area” if the Superfund designation is reached, Poalinelli said. “I can assure you the work will not stop. The state is continuing the [cleanup] work and I am convinced of all the work they’ve done on the facility and well as throughout the residential area.”
Mark Lopez, co-chair of the Exide Technologies advisory group and organizer with East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, floated the notion to widen the cleanup scope to include large rail yards covered with toxic dust near the defunct battery smelter.
The EPA can look at current and potential new data of approved residential properties, parkways and the Exide facility, but not beyond until the site joins the Superfund list, Poalinelli said.
Mehdi Bettahar, assistant deputy director with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the cleanup endeavor targets all properties with or exceeding 200 parts per million of lead in soil, and encouraged residents within the perimeter area whose properties have not been tested to sign an agreement for sampling.
He told residents to contact the project’s hotline at 844-225-3887 to follow up on pending testing, to report sampled parcels that need cleanups or to file complains related to crews misconduct.
Bettahar said the agency has completed soil removal and replenishment at 3,907 parcels as of July 22, and is on schedule to clean 5,940 by March 2025 with the current state allocation of $322.4 million.
The first $251.1 million allocated to detoxify lead-tainted yards has been mostly spent with a balance of $4.2 million for unforeseen work in properties, he said.
“We are limited with resources we can provide until the site is listed in the National Priority list,” Bettahar said.
Despite inflation tallied at 8.5% a year, Bettahar said the project remains on track with 30 crews working daily in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon.
The pace of cleanups has picked up at a clip of more than 90 parcels a month from 80 recorded earlier this year, resulting in minimal parking impact in cities like Commerce, where many crews are currently at work.
On the Exide plant, Bettahar said $50 million of the $132 million allocated by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to restore the site have been committed to cleaning contracts with $5 million already spent.
Local 300 and Laborers’ International Union of North America representative Javier Nuñez said that due to the circumstances unique to the environmental project, the union has agreed not to call for work stoppages.
Nuñez said more than 50% of all workers in the cleanup project, or about 70, hail from impacted communities, have been trained and received physical clearance to work.
“We have labor compliance and a trust fund to make sure employees are paid fairly,” Nuñez said. “We also make sure that during summer and with hot weather they have water and shaded structures. Luckily, nobody has dehydrated or had a heat stroke.”
Nuñez said that key union goals are to maintain a healthy workforce, invite anyone without high school diplomas to join, and make workers gain experience so they can earn better wages.
Poonam Acharya, project manager with the Department of Toxic Substances Control in the transition of the Vernon Environmental Trust Fund, said the agency evaluates tearing down remaining buildings not involved with battery crushing, remove sludge from a water treatment plant, and relocate power lines.
To do so the agency and local agencies will have to shut down Bandini Boulevard to access railroad tracks, Acharya said.
“The task is [slated] for fall, and at this point sludge removal is critical to ensure that there is enough headspace available for future treatment of storm and waste water,” she said.
Bettahar reminded residents that distrustful landlords and owners who refuse to sign access agreements for soil sampling will be excluded from the cleanups, a result that can haunt the community for years with a patched landscape of foul lots.
“It’s not only your yard, but your neighbors’ yard,” Bettahar said. “We want to ensure we don’t leave anything untouched when we leave.”
Callers to the meeting encouraged the environmental directors to continue reaching out to residents to gather more feedback related to cleanup works and during the waiting period leading to the Superfund designation.