Cru­cial de­tails about huge lead cleanup yet to emerge

2,500 homes are set to be cleaned — but thou­sands more wait

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Barboza and Ben Pos­ton is still left unan­swered.

By this fall, Cal­i­for­nia’s De­part­ment of Toxic Sub­stances Con­trol plans to be­gin re­mov­ing lead-tainted soil from 2,500 res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties near the shut­tered Ex­ide Tech­nolo­gies bat­tery re­cy­cling plant in Ver­non.

The cleanup — the largest of its kind in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory — spans seven south­east Los An­ge­les County neigh­bor­hoods, where plant op­er­a­tions have threat­ened the health of an es­ti­mated 100,000 peo­ple.

More than two years af­ter the pos­si­bil­ity of fed­eral crim­i­nal charges forced the plant to shut down, how­ever, the state has re­fused to re­lease cru­cial in­for­ma­tion about the con­tam­i­na­tion and cleanup re­quested by law­mak­ers, com­mu­nity mem­bers and re­porters.

Here’s what The Times has learned through re­peated ques­tions and records re­quests — and what What are the health risks?

Lead is a poi­son that, even in small amounts, can lower chil­dren’s IQs and cause other de­vel­op­men­tal harm.

From 1922 to 2014, reg­u­la­tors say, the Ver­non plant’s lead-smelt­ing op­er­a­tions de­posited the harm­ful metal in the soil up to 1.7 miles away.

Ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis re­leased last year by the state pub­lic health de­part­ment, nearly 300 chil­dren younger than 6 liv­ing near Ex­ide had high blood lead lev­els in 2012 — the last year the plant was in full op­er­a­tion. The U.S. Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion con­sid­ers blood lead lev­els of 5 mi­cro­grams per deciliter or more to be el­e­vated.

County health of­fi­cials are ad­min­is­ter­ing a free blood-test­ing pro­gram for peo­ple liv­ing near the fa­cil­ity, funded with $2 mil­lion from Ex­ide. Fewer than 0.5%

What neigh­bor­hoods have been af­fected?

Reg­u­la­tors say lead emis­sions from the Ex­ide plant drifted across an area of more than 10,000 res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties span­ning seven com­mu­ni­ties: Bell, Boyle Heights, Com­merce, East Los An­ge­les, Hunt­ing­ton Park, May­wood and Ver­non. The af­fected neigh­bor­hoods are pre­dom­i­nantly Latino, with about 30% of peo­ple liv­ing in poverty; the coun­ty­wide poverty rate is 18%.

Crews so far have tested the soil of more than 8,200 prop­er­ties. In its July 6 cleanup plan, the state sum­ma­rized sam­pling re­sults for more than 7,000 of those — and more than 98% showed lead lev­els ex­ceed­ing 80 parts per mil­lion, Cal­i­for­nia’s health stan­dard for res­i­den­tial soil.

The toxic sub­stances con­trol de­part­ment has re­leased spread­sheets con­tain­ing de­tailed sam­pling data on about 1,900 res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties, and re­cently made pub­lic the ad­dresses and par­cel num­bers of a few dozen child-care fa­cil­i­ties where crews sam­pled the soil or de­tected el­e­vated lead lev­els. But the de­part­ment has not re­leased the pre­cise lo­ca­tions of homes tested.

The Times has sought sam­pling re­sults by par­cel, ad­dress, map co­or­di­nates and block num­ber, based on the pub­lic’s right to know the ex­tent of con­tam­i­na­tion and how the gov­ern­ment is spend­ing pub­lic funds.

The state toxic sub­stances de­part­ment ar­gues that dis­clos­ing such in­for­ma­tion would com­pro­mise res­i­dents’ pri­vacy, ex­pose sen­si­tive health in­for­ma­tion and dis­cour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion in soil sam­pling and cleanup.

Though the data per­tain “to soil lead lev­els, not per­sonal blood lead lev­els,” tox­ics de­part­ment lawyer James Mathi­son said in a March let­ter, “there is a po­ten­tial cor­re­la­tion to be made be­tween iden­ti­fy­ing par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tions with high soil lead lev­els and cor­re­spond­ingly high blood lead lev­els” of peo­ple liv­ing there.

More than half of the house­holds sur­veyed re­cently by county health of­fi­cials re­ported that they have not re­ceived re­sults from the soil test­ing com­pleted in their yards. Fig­ures re­leased by the tox­ics de­part­ment show that as of late July, it had yet to send re­sults to more than 2,000 parcels — about one-quar­ter of those tested.

Of­fi­cials said more re­sults are be­ing mailed to res­i­dents weekly.

Ge­or­gia-based Ex­ide, which ac­quired the plant in 2000, has said its lead emis­sions did not ex­tend into res­i­den­tial ar­eas — and has pointed the fin­ger at other in­dus­tries, lead-based paint in older homes and past emis­sions from ve­hi­cles.

The com­pany filed a law­suit last year seek­ing blood lead data on peo­ple tested in L.A. County, in­clud­ing each per­son’s age, city and ZIP Code; the age of the home in which each per­son lived; and any causes of lead poi­son­ing.

The state is fight­ing the law­suit in court, call­ing it an at­tempt by Ex­ide to dodge fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and blame the con­tam­i­na­tion on lead paint and gaso­line. How many homes have been cleaned — and where?

Crews have re­moved lead from 262 res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties since el­e­vated lev­els of the poi­sonous metal were dis­cov­ered in neigh­bor­hoods near the plant more than three years ago.

Be­gin­ning in Au­gust 2014, Ex­ide — un­der state over­sight — paid con­trac­tors to clean 186 tainted prop­er­ties in Boyle Heights and May­wood. From Novem­ber 2015 to June 2016, crews cleaned an ad­di­tional 50 homes far­ther from the plant, us­ing $7 mil­lion in tax­payer funds set aside for sam­pling and re­me­di­a­tion.

Cleanup work then stood at a stand­still for months, with reg­u­la­tors ar­gu­ing they could not re­move lead-pol­luted soil from any prop­er­ties amid a year­long en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view.

In Jan­uary, the de­part­ment an­nounced an ex­pe­dited cleanup pro­gram for the high­est-risk prop­er­ties. Crews have cleaned 26 parcels since then, ac­cord­ing to the de­part­ment.

De­spite re­quests from The Times, state tox­ics of­fi­cials have not re­leased records de­tail­ing the dates and lo­ca­tions of com­pleted cleanups.

The state health de­part­ment has not al­lowed The Times to ac­cess records of lead haz­ard no­ti­fi­ca­tions that are posted out­side each yard be­fore it is cleaned. Which prop­er­ties are in line to be cleaned?

Un­der new state guide­lines, yards will be se­lected for cleanup if they meet cer­tain lead thresh­olds. Also slated for cleanup are dozens of child-care cen­ters and a hand­ful of schools and parks within the con­tam­i­na­tion zone.

In its cleanup plan, the state es­ti­mates that with the money avail­able, it will be able to clean ap­prox­i­mately 2,500 prop­er­ties “with the high­est lev­els of lead and great­est po­ten­tial health risk.”

Soil re­moval should be­gin af­ter a con­trac­tor is se­lected this fall, of­fi­cials said, and the ef­fort will take about two years.

State Assem­bly­man Miguel San­ti­ago (D-Los An­ge­les) called the plan “a step in the right di­rec­tion” but com­plained that the years­long time­line for clean­ing homes “de­fies all logic.”

“I know that ev­ery­body would like ev­ery­thing to hap­pen faster than it does,” Bar­bara Lee, di­rec­tor of the De­part­ment of Toxic Sub­stances Con­trol, told re­porters last month. “But if you look at these cleanups across the na­tion, what DTSC has been able to do in a year’s time is re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary.” How much is be­ing spent on test­ing and cleanup?

More than $192 mil­lion has been set aside for the project, most of it in April 2016, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed leg­is­la­tion au­tho­riz­ing $176.6 mil­lion to test all 10,000 prop­er­ties and re­move lead from about 2,500 of them.

At least $42 mil­lion al­ready has been spent. Tax­pay­ers are foot­ing most of the bill, at least for now.

Ex­ide paid $9 mil­lion into a trust ac­count dur­ing the project’s first phase of test­ing and cleanup and is ob­li­gated to make ad­di­tional pay­ments in the fu­ture. Through the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, the state has vowed to go af­ter Ex­ide and any other re­spon­si­ble par­ties to re­coup costs, in what is likely to be a pro­tracted le­gal fight.

The state tox­ics agency took more than 10 months to turn over records de­tail­ing its ex­pen­di­tures on the project. You can view them at la­times.com/ex­ide-bud­get.

Neigh­bor­hood groups and area elected of­fi­cials said they have strug­gled to get of­fi­cials to an­swer ba­sic ques­tions about the project.

“Years go by and we’re not get­ting the in­for­ma­tion,” said Teresa Mar­quez, pres­i­dent of Moth­ers of East Los An­ge­les. “We don’t even know what houses they’re clean­ing. So it’s not trans­par­ent.”

State tox­ics de­part­ment spokes­woman Rosanna West­more­land said that the agency “is work­ing hard to re­lease as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble” but that the scale and com­plex­ity of the project make that dif­fi­cult. What hap­pens to con­tam­i­nated prop­er­ties that don’t make the cut?

Though the tox­ics de­part­ment es­ti­mates that the soil of nearly 10,000 prop­er­ties may need to be cleaned, it has not com­mit­ted to re­me­di­at­ing any be­yond the 2,500 cov­ered by its cleanup plan.

For now, that leaves thou­sands of fam­i­lies whose yards are con­tam­i­nated with no time­line for when to ex­pect cleanup, if at all. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials, the state’s abil­ity to clean ad­di­tional homes depends on fund­ing.

Their plan is to no­tify res­i­dents whose homes will not make the cur­rent cut and pro­vide them fact sheets on how to min­i­mize their ex­po­sure to lead.

“We’re not going to tell them, ‘Your prop­erty is not going to be cleaned up or doesn’t need to be cleaned up,’ ” Mohsen Nazemi, a tox­ics de­part­ment deputy di­rec­tor, told res­i­dents and com­mu­nity lead­ers at a pub­lic meet­ing July 20. He dis­puted the sug­ges­tion that the de­part­ment was leav­ing res­i­dents be­hind, say­ing, “They’re not for­got­ten, they’re just not in this phase of cleanup.”

An­gry com­mu­nity mem­bers and elected of­fi­cials say the tox­ics de­part­ment should of­fer some as­sur­ance that it will con­tinue clean­ing homes af­ter 2019 us­ing other funds — in­clud­ing rev­enue from new fees state law­mak­ers im­posed on the sale of lead-acid bat­ter­ies, the kind that were melted down at Ex­ide.

Those fees — which West­more­land said were among the “po­ten­tial op­tions for fund­ing fur­ther sam­pling and cleanup ac­tiv­i­ties” — took ef­fect April 1 and could raise up to $26 mil­lion a year for sites con­tam­i­nated by bat­tery-re­cy­cling op­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to state es­ti­mates.

Assem­bly­woman Cristina Gar­cia (D-Bell Gar­dens), who au­thored the leg­is­la­tion, said she ex­pected those funds to grow over the next two years while crews clean the 2,500 prop­er­ties near Ex­ide.

“There should be enough money so there is no in­ter­rup­tion and the work continues at a sim­i­lar pace,” Gar­cia said.

But in the mean­time, she added, “I find it re­ally ir­re­spon­si­ble to tell the pub­lic that we don’t know if we’re going to take care of you. I have con­stituents that are pan­icked that they’re going to be left be­hind.”

Pho­to­graphs by Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. COUNTY HEALTH de­part­ment work­ers pre­pare soil sam­ples for lead con­tam­i­na­tion test­ing at a home in Com­merce last year.

THE CLEANUP of lead-tainted homes near the shut­tered Ex­ide Tech­nolo­gies bat­tery re­cy­cling plant in Ver­non is the largest of its kind in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

“THEY’RE NOT for­got­ten, they’re just not in this phase,” Mohsen Nazemi, a state tox­ics de­part­ment of­fi­cial, said of homes with no time­line for cleanup.

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