Inside the effort to clean up Exide’s toxic legacy

On a crisp and sunny morning last weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke before a crowd of Boyle Heights residents gathered at a neighborhood park. He told them that after years of little action, the state of California was finally doing much more to help people who were possibly exposed to lead because of pollution released from the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in nearby Vernon.

In particular, Garcetti praised Governor Jerry Brown for requesting $177 million from the state legislature to fund environmental testing and cleanup efforts in Boyle Heights and other communities near the Exide facility, like Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce and East L.A..

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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti joined other volunteers in going door to door in Boyle Heights to talk about possible pollution from the Exide plant on their properties. He also encouraged them to sign release forms to allow for testing and cleanup. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

“It’s the biggest clean up effort the state has undertaken,” said Barbara Lee, the director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, the agency in charge of the project. DTSC believes possible contamination from Exide could extend out in a 1.7-mile radius around the facility, an area that encompasses 10,000 properties, most of them homes.

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But to test and clean all of those properties, officials will need residents to first sign consent forms. To get those signatures, platoons of volunteers are knocking on doors and asking residents to fill out the paperwork that gives permission for workers to come on private properties.

One challenge, said volunteer Lucy Legaspi, is assuring people in these working class and immigrant neighborhoods with a large number of undocumented residents that the testing and cleanup has nothing to do with the police or immigration authorities.

“And we tell them that we are just here for your health and your safety,” said Legaspi. “We are not here for anything else. No other agencies are going to come out and get you for your legal status, or for none of that.”

But fixing the toxic legacy of Exide goes beyond signing papers and moving dirt. As the state does its job, L.A. County health workers are asking people who live near the plant to take blood tests to see if they have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. Elevated levels of lead can cause serious neurological damage.

In the same park where Garcetti spoke, a temporary clinic had been set up for blood tests. “I’m really worried,” said Boyle Heights resident Veronica Ramirez, who was having her blood tested. “I am really worried because it is about my health and about my family’s health.”

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Boyle Heights resident Veronica Ramirez gets her blood drawn to test for any signs of elevated blood levels. Authorities are asking thousands of people who live near the Exide plant to get tested. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

In addition to being concerned, many people who live near Exide are angry that it took so long for their community to get what they say is overdue help and attention.

“This should have been done a year or two years ago,” said Monsignor John Moretta, the pastor at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.

Moretta believes officials were shamed into stepping up their help for communities possibly affected by Exide pollution after people started contrasting their plight with all of the attention paid to residents affected by the recent natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, a far wealthier L.A. community 30 miles away.

“Oh sure, specially when every Tom, Dick and Harry was running to Porter Ranch, said Moretta. “We thought if we called ourselves ‘Boyle Heights Ranch’ we might get a little more attention.”

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has also been slammed for allowing the Exide facility to operate with a temporary permit for 30 years before it closed in March 2015. The plant had outdated pollution control equipment and received numerous violations for shoddy storage of toxic material and poor safety procedures.

Barbara Lee, DTSC’s director, has defended her agency’s response since she assumed her position a year ago.

“We have been actively engaged in closing that facility, in testing properties and cleaning that up,” said Lee. “We have already cleaned up 200 properties. I know its not 10,000, but it’s a good start, and we are going to do 2,500 in the next two years.”

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A map showing the possible zone of contamination from the Exide plant. Full testing and cleanup could be the largest environmental remediation project in California history. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

Governor Brown say he hopes Exide, which is headquartered in Georgia, will reimburse the state for the $177 million it wants to spend on lead testing and environmental remediation work. But in a deal reached with prosecutors last March, Exide agreed to pay only $50 million initially. In exchange the company and its employees avoided criminal prosecution for the company’s environmental and safety violations.