It’s not so easy to clean up Exide’s lead pollution

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Cleanup is now underway to remove the toxins left behind by the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, just south of downtown Los Angeles. For decades, the plant pumped dangerous levels of lead pollution into the air, affecting thousands of nearby homes and other properties in working-class communities like Huntington Park, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill authorizing more than $176 million in additional state funding to test for lead pollution and to expand an effort to clean up the mess.

On South Hicks Street in East Los Angeles, workers contracted to California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control  are working to remove lead-tainted soil from a property and replace it with pollutant-free dirt. The most polluted soil in the cleanup effort will be trucked to a hazardous waste disposal facility in Arizona.

Work crews contracted to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control clean up a lead polluted house in East Los Angeles. It’s one of up to 10,000 properties contaminated by the Exide plant. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Authorities are prioritizing contaminated properties on a scale of 1 to 3. Priority 1 locations (this is an estimated 2,500 parcels of land) have lead contamination levels of one thousand parts per million or more. It’s feared that level of contamination could be especially hazardous to children under the age of 7, possibly causing long-term neurological damage.

“We want get into these properties and get them cleaned up as quickly as possible so that these kids that are living here and getting exposed to these levels are taken care of,” says Sarah Cromie, a senior environmental scientist with DTSC.

Senior environmental scientist Sarah Cromie with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control monitors lead clean up efforts in an East L.A. neighborhood. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Lead contamination worries Maria Moreno, who lives with her children and grandchildren in a house next door to the property being cleaned up on Hope Street.  “We have small children here. We want them to clean it up quickly, says Moreno.

But so far, only 209 homes have had lead contamination removed.

Out of the 10,000 properties that might be contaminated, authorities have only gotten access agreements signed from 1,258 homes. Those agreements allow DTSC personnel to come onto properties and do testing for lead contamination in preparation for clean up.

Officials say they are stepping up efforts to get access agreements signed, which can be difficult in neighborhoods where many are undocumented and are suspicious of any interaction with the government.

But even with those agreements signed, cleanup of thousands of properties polluted by Exide won’t begin until 2017 at the earliest. This is because some community groups have demanded the expanded cleanup program proceed only after it’s been reviewed under the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The community groups say CEQA review is necessary to make sure residents aren’t exposed to additional contamination and to ensure community input.

State officials won’t say when the Exide cleanup effort will be finished and the cost could exceed $500 million, making it one of the most expensive environmental restoration efforts in California history.

A batch of lead-free dirt ready to be spread on property once contaminated soil is removed. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)