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County seeks to expedite Exide cleanup process

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors Oct. 27 approved a $2 million funding request by Supervisor Hilda Solis to help speed the cleanup of contaminated soil around the now-closed Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, saying “the state continues to drag its feet.”

Exide agreed in March to close its lead-acid battery recycling plant and to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.

Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup. As of August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million is due to be paid in by March 2020, according to state officials.

But not enough has been done by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to protect the health of residents, Solis said.

“Only 44 homes have been cleaned, and I mean, inside and out,” Solis said.

Last week, a department spokesman said the state had cleaned the yards of 170 homes around the facility and cleaned the “interior of every home where the property owner has granted us access.”

Solis said as many as 1,000 homes may be found to have toxicity concentrated enough to qualify as hazardous waste, and the state has estimated that 5,000-10,000 homes may ultimately require some cleanup. The price tag could run in excess of $400 million, Solis said Oct. 27.

The plant, which produced a host of hazardous wastes, including lead, arsenic and benzene, operated for 33 years without a permanent permit. Efforts to upgrade the equipment and safety procedures repeatedly failed to meet environmental standards.

Though gaseous plant emissions are no longer an issue, lead contamination in the soil, which can cause developmental delays and cognitive impairments, remains a concern.

A public health spokesman also cited the increased risk of cancer linked to other chemicals once emitted by the plant.

“The Exide chemicals have raised the cancer risk of tens of thousands of people around the Exide facility,” said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the county Health Department’s Toxic Epidemiology Program. “Despite the closure of the facility, this community has to live with an increased cancer risk … for the rest of their lives.”

Anthony Gutierrez, a resident who lived in close proximity to the plant for years, told the board he has cancer and that chemicals from the plant severely stunted his growth.

“When you look at me, you see a 12-year-old boy, but I’m actually 25 years old,” Gutierrez said. “My doctors tell me I shouldn’t be alive today.”

Gutierrez is one of many residents who attributed illness and disease to emissions from the Exide plant.

Lead is not considered a carcinogen by the Centers for Disease Control. However, benzene, arsenic and the industrial chemical 1,3-Butadiene, all of which were used by Exide, are recognized as human carcinogens.

Environmental regulation and cleanup is the state’s responsibility, but Solis said state agencies are not moving with enough urgency, despite meetings with Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee and outreach to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“As long as lead is still in the ground,” residents will be at risk, Solis said.

The neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park have the highest levels of residential contamination, but the area of exposure stretches to encompass roughly 2 million people, according to Angelo Bellomo, director of the county’s Environmental Health Division.

The county’s $2 million will be spent to facilitate cleanup, rapidly assess other potentially contaminated properties and begin a comprehensive health campaign.

County attorneys are assessing their legal options for forcing the state or Exide to act and plan to meet with the board behind closed doors in the next week or two to discuss those alternatives.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich was among those who raised concerns about the county taking on liability if it steps in to clean up.

“The county is not the culpable party,” said interim County Counsel Mary Wickham, assuring the board that there would be no shifting of responsibility.

However, if county workers stepped in to handle the cleanup directly and were negligent in those efforts, there is a concern that they could be blamed. Direct cleanup efforts are not currently planned.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said federal intervention was not out of the question.