LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles city councilman and a state legislator called out the state for what they said has been an incredibly slow response to the cleanup of contamination at the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes the Boyle Heights neighborhood that has been impacted by the Exide site, wants the director of the California Department of Toxic Substance Control to come before his Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million to test soil at properties near the plant and conduct cleanup operations at as many as 2,500 properties near the site, which closed in 2015.
The cleanup operation is the largest ever undertaken by the state.
“I am outraged and our state should be outraged by the ineptitude and lack of urgency under the most urgent circumstances possible,” Huizar said May 4. “I have little faith that an agency that failed to do its job and duty on behalf of the residents of Los Angeles’ east and southeast communities to properly regulate Exide, would then be able to lead the largest contamination cleanup in state history.”
He added, “The state has done an extremely poor job of keeping track of this issue in what is an environmental justice affront of epic proportions to the mostly Latino, immigrant and low-income residents of our affected communities, including Boyle Heights. The city of Los Angeles deserves answers about immediate remedies and funding plans for all the cleanups, including the 5,000 sites and parkways that currently have no funding or cleanup plan. These plans need to be in place now — not years or decades from now. The health and welfare of our families and children depend on it.”
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who represents Boyle Heights in Sacramento, was also angry at the Department of Toxic Substance Control.
“I want to see completion on the cleanup of the priority high-lead-level properties identified by [the department by the end of this year and significant progress made on remaining homes,” Santiago said in a press release. “If not, I will personally demand the resignation of the leadership of DTSC and I will work with our next governor to ensure that happens. In fact, you can count on seeing me checking in on these homes personally over the next few months.”
The Exide plant, which opened in 1922, was allowed to keep operating by the department under a temporary permit for 33 years, despite continuing environmental violations. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed 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.
In March, state environmental regulators released maps identifying more than 2,000 properties near the former Exide plant with elevated lead concentrations in the soil. The interactive maps were based on tests conducted by the Department of Toxic Substances Control at 8,500 properties within 1.7 miles of the facility.
Huizar outlined his request for department Director Barbara A. Lee to appear before his committee in a City Council motion. If approved by the full council, the motion could not compel Lee to appear but would express the desire of the full City Council to hear from her.
The motion also calls on city departments, including the city attorney, to report back on options for the city to compel the department or Exide to perform the necessary cleanups on a much faster timeline.
Santiago didn’t pull any punches in his criticism of the Department of Toxic Substance Control.
“I am aware that there are infinite technicalities on a project of this scale involving a derelict company and a state agency, and that this cleanup is one of the biggest of its kind in the nation,” Santiago said. “I’m also damn sure that this would be done and old news if this wasn’t occurring in a working-class Latino neighborhood.
“I believe that the people at DTSC have had, and continue to have, the best of intentions when it comes to this work. The problem is that ‘intentions’ don’t help families sleep at night,” Santiago added.
“It’s time for a change-maker to take over this job and to prove to my community and other low-income, working-class neighborhoods that the state of California cares about them, too.”