By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Pete Reyes’ blunt criticism of his former employers at National Engineering Consulting Group came as a warning to state officials that abuses to area employees hired as crews to remove toxic particles dumped by the former Exide battery site will not be tolerated anymore.
At a two-hour advisory group virtual gathering Nov. 18, Reyes, a co-chair of the Exide Technologies Advisory Group in charge of creating policies to better serve communities undergoing removal of soil poisoned by lead spread by the former battery recycling plant, said workers and neighbors are tired of being treated as second-class people.
Reyes alleged National Engineering’s management has made racist remark on workers’ ethnic backgrounds, runs deficient COVID-19 protocols ordered by the county’s Health Department, and illegally fired crewmembers.
Reyes said he complained to his bosses, seeking improvements in the company’s work culture.
But the owner’s brother retaliated and fired him this year. When he picked up his last check, Reyes said he was told he should have stayed quiet.
“There has been a pattern of targeting. There was time to speak up,” said Reyes, who has been laid off three times by as many different contractors engaged in environmental remediation as part of the Exide community cleanup project. “I know how it is.”
Reyes is not alone. Several other current cleanup crew members attending the Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic have raised a cascade of complaints, ranging from racist catcalls to unfair labor practices they allege are consistent with rude and insensitive corporate bosses who oppress indigenous and Latino employees and lack training dealing with a diverse workforce.
Many have joined the online sessions to voice their grievances anonymously, due to fear of losing their jobs. Others like Reyes, said what they want is to have mutually respectful relationships.
“It’s important to understand we want to work together, but it’s impossible with this contractor to do that,” he said.
After the permanent closure of the Exide plant in industrial Vernon in 2015, environmental activists, local churches and organized residents asked the state to forge a labor plan that would train local residents with the skills to be hired and work on lead cleanups in their neighborhoods.
In response, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control created the Workforce for Environmental Restoration in Communities with the objective of preparing applicants to obtain soil samples, operate heavy industrial machinery and be ready to remove up to 18 inches of soil from front and backyards, replenish them with fresh soil and cleanse structures permanently attached to the ground.
The Workforce for Environmental Restoration in Communities began under former Gov. Jerry Brown’s watch. In addition to allocating $176.6 million for the initial phase of residential, schools and child care centers cleanings, Brown signed laws to craft programs that promoted public health and improved the local economy.
Under Brown, a total of $245.5 million was approved to cover the costs of environmental cleanups blamed on toxic metals spewed by smokestacks in the Exide’s plant, now being demolished.
Workers who signed up were trained at the Los Angeles Trade Tech College and graduated from the program. If they finished successfully, the student workers earned the state’s Department of Public Health certification that allowed them to land jobs in companies that mitigate environmental lead hazards.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control paid Trade Tech $1.02 million to hold classes and training facilities supporting the scope of work related to the Exide’s polluted community surfaces.
According to an amended contract posted on the Department of Toxic Substances Control web page, training courses took place from July 18, 2016 to Aug. 30, 2019.
Hundreds of certified students have been hired by a handful of companies that secured highly lucrative contracts with the state, agreeing to renew and replenish toxic soil on yards, parkways and other surfaces within a 1.7-mile radius of the former lead battery recycler.
National Engineering is the latest environmental remediation company hired by the Department of Toxic Substances Control to work on the Exide cleanup project. Previous environmental restoration companies that landed contracts to perform Exide cleanups are Parsons Corporation and EFI Global.
On June 2, National Engineering President and CEO Dania H. Akhal signed a $27.4 million contract to clean lead-polluted surfaces at 400 units found in Boyle Height’s Wyvernwood Garden Apartments and Estrada Courts, the latter managed by the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles.
The agreement calls for National Engineering to complete cleanings of hazardous soil materials in the two multi-apartment complexes by Dec. 31, 2022.
Before that, National Engineering landed an initial contract worth $11.6 million to decontaminate lead from soil in 200 parcels from Aug. 30, 2018 to June 30, 2019.
Last February, Jagroop Khela, Exide’s contract manager unit with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, mailed a letter to Gary Della Vecchia, National Engineering’s contract manager, requesting explanation for the firing of six graduates, and for breaching agreements that called for specific percentages of work allocations to community residents, local residents, transitional workers and new environmental workers.
In the letter, Khela said the program graduates are defined as new environmental workers, are career skills trained and state labor agencies require them to conduct 50% of the total work under the Exide project contract.
Della Vecchia responded Feb. 25 that 11 current workers previously identified as community residents obtained “within two years prior to be hired onto the project” certifications from the state’s Department of Public Health to do “lead-related construction work in California.”
Della Vecchia’s letter indicates that new environmental graduates completed 49.6% of the worked hours of the project’s 211,754 hours logged by the company.
National Engineering did not explain why it laid off the six graduates and didn’t reveal how many project cleanup crew workers are on its payroll.
Peter Ruttan, senior engineering geologist and residential cleanup project manager with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said in August that a minimum of 175 workers are mobilized a day decontaminating lead polluted lots.
Rania Sabty, professor of environmental and occupational health at Cal State Northridge, congratulated Reyes for being outspoken about his severed relationship with National Engineering.
Sabty, also a co-chair of the Exide Technologies Advisory Group, said uncovering unfair labor practices at the cleaning sites will encourage workers and the community to defend their rights and report abuses to workers’ unions, with the state’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency and pertinent authorities.
“We will be more willing to bring information that will be hopeful and worthwhile for the community,” Sabty said.