The Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, California. (Chris Richard/KQED)
State regulators have released plans to clean up lead contamination from thousands of homes near the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, just east of downtown Los Angeles.
Officials call it the biggest industrial waste cleanup project in California, and one of the largest in the country. But they said their funding -- $176.6 million allocated by state legislators last year -- is only sufficient to clean up about a quarter of the estimated 10,000 properties that have been contaminated in a 1.7 mile-radius around the plant.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) hopes to pick a cleanup contractor next month and work should start shortly after that, said Mohsen Nazemi, who is overseeing the project.
Regulators measure contamination by its concentration, expressed as parts per million. For the Exide project, the DTSC will give the highest priority to properties it considers most contaminated and that pose the greatest risk to vulnerable people. Lead is a potent neurotoxin. Studies have found young children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure.
Homes with soil lead concentrations of at least 400 parts per million.
Residential properties where cumulative sampling finds contamination at less than 400 parts per million, but that have hot spots of at least 1,000 parts per million.
Day care and child care centers with soil lead concentrations of 80 parts per million or higher that have not yet been cleaned.
Originally, the cleanup set a safety threshold of 80 parts per million. DTSC director Barbara Lee said the department still will clean the properties it can work on now to that level. But cleaning up where the contamination is between 80 and 400 parts per million "depends entirely on available funding," Lee said.
The DTSC's plan does include some concessions to local concerns. The draft plan had proposed to give the highest priority to properties with lead contamination at or above 1,000 parts per million.
That drew criticism from Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. He noted that at that level, the soil would be contaminated enough that it would have to go to specially licensed landfills.
Further, he predicted that the DTSC might underestimate some of the worst contamination, because the department arrives at its figures by averaging all the lead it discovers on a property. He cautioned that might inappropriately minimize the health threat posed by a spot of very high contamination.
On Thursday, Nazemi stood by the department's method for calculating contamination.
But the department's final cleanup plan drops the threshold for priority cleanup significantly, to 400 parts per million. Department director Lee pointed out that is also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for residential cleanups and the benchmark that the state Department of Public Health uses for flagging contamination in children's play areas.
The final plan also takes hot spots into account.
Nazemi said the department took heed of another community concern as well.
Earlier, the DTSC had proposed to give the highest priority to homes where young children or pregnant women live. But Nazemi said many people pointed out that children and pregnant women regularly visit other homes in the neighborhood.
"We took all that to heart, and that's why the prioritization in the final cleanup plan is the way it is," Nazemi said.
Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California who serves on a DTSC community advisory group, welcomed those changes.
"I think what they have here is a lot more clear than what they had presented earlier," she said.
At Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, a center of community activism concerning Exide, Monsignor John Moretta said he's still concerned that the cleanup does not appear to address parkways. While it's true that those tree yards are public and not formally part of residential properties, people regularly cross them and children play on them, Moretta said.
He said he'll continue to demand attention to that issue.
Exide's neighbors have been increasingly critical of the DTSC's oversight and cleanup plans.
The battery plant shut down two years ago. Just before it closed, it was recycling as many as 40,000 car batteries a day. Authorities believe it vented a lot of pollution, showering nearby homes with lead dust for decades. The DTSC let the polluter operate for 33 years on a permit that was supposed to be temporary.
Recently the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released results of a community survey that showed:
48 percent of those questioned had at least one child under 6 years of age, or that such children spent time in their homes and yards.
65 percent of those surveyed reported that their yards had been tested for lead. But of those, more than half said they hadn't received their testing results.
52 percent of those surveyed said they're not satisfied with the pace of the cleanup.
In an email, Department of Toxic Substances Control spokeswoman Abbott Dutton writes that the DTSC is trying to protect children who might be exposed to Exide's lead.
"The health and safety of this community, especially the youngest and most vulnerable, is the department’s top priority," the email states.
"The proposed cleanup is the largest of its kind undertaken in California; it demonstrates the Administration’s strong commitment to protecting the health of those who live in these communities."
Dutton notes that DTSC contractors have taken samples from some 8,221 parcels out of the total 10,129 in the area it is assigned to investigate. The department has mailed lab-certified results to the property owners of more than half the sites tested, and weekly shipments continue, Dutton writes. And she states the department holds regular workshops in how to read the reports.
In response to criticisms over the pace of the cleanup, Dutton points out that work was suspended when the department was required to prepare an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act. She notes that Gov. Jerry Brown originally proposed waiving the requirement for a report, but the department acceded to community and state legislative concerns and proceeded with the review.
Speaking at a press conference last week to announce the results of the community survey, lifelong Exide neighbor Joe Gonzalez said he no longer trusts what the DTSC says. He suspects his two cancer diagnoses are linked to a lifetime of exposure to contaminants from the plant. He blames the DTSC for not enforcing environmental laws sooner, and he thoroughly distrusts the current cleanup.
"This is what happens when you put the fox in charge of the hen house," he said. "There's no way in heck that the DTSC should be in charge of the cleanup because all they’re going to do is try to cover their tracks as how much they messed up."
One big question remains: how to pay to clean up the properties not covered by the DTSC's recently announced plan.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis estimates the total cleanup cost at $500 million. At the press conference where the survey results were announced, Solis urged state officials to find new funding, including expedited action on applying funds from a new state fee on car batteries to cover cleanup costs.
But DTSC director Lee said it's too soon to predict how much money that fee will raise.
Exide is legally bound to pay $26 million to help pay for cleaning up the contamination it caused to homes near the plant. So far, it's chipped in $9 million, with another $5 million due in 2020.