California’s Largest Toxic Cleanup Is Failing, Lead-Poisoned Locals Say

February 5, 2020 Updated: February 6, 2020
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LOS ANGELES—On the outer walls of Resurrection Church in Los Angeles, signs in English and Spanish advertised free blood testing for lead. Inside the church on Jan. 31, a State Assembly committee met to discuss the progress of California’s largest toxic cleanup.

The cleanup, which began in 2017, includes the removal of lead-tainted soil from thousands of properties around a shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in the city of Commerce, just south of Los Angeles.

Behind the church stood temporary facilities for local residents to have their blood tested for contamination before or after attending the meeting. Residents who spoke during the public comment period were upset about the progress of the cleanup.

When Joe Gonzalez, 63, approached the microphone, he was wearing a thick necklace formed by about 125 medical bracelets linked together. He used to wear “hippie beads,” he said, but he replaced those with this unconventional accessory to make a point about the health risks of living next to the Exide site.

“These are medical tags from the last two years only,” he said. “This is about only half of the stuff I’ve gone through as far as radiation treatments, chemotherapy, MRIs, PET scans—everything that comes along with being contaminated and poisoned.”

“It’s really, really hard to squeeze eight, nine years of battle into a couple of minutes,” he said. He’s more frustrated than angry now, he said. “I can’t get angry about this anymore because I’m dying anyhow.”

“This is a public health crisis,” he added. “DTSC [Department of Toxic Substances Control] is letting us down tremendously. They do not have an expedient nor efficient plan.”

Epoch Times Photo
A sign on the wall of Resurrection Church advertises blood testing for high levels of lead in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2020. (Chris Karr/The Epoch Times)

During the meeting, DTSC Director Meredith Williams presented a slideshow of updates to Assemblymembers Richard Bloom (D), Cristina Garcia (D), and Miguel Santiago (D).

Dangerous Levels of Lead and Arsenic

Lead and arsenic emissions from the recycling plant drifted across a large swath of land for more than 30 years. Some 10,000 properties within a 1.7-mile radius are thought to have lead levels above 80 parts per million (ppm), a level that could affect children’s IQ.

About a quarter of those are thought to have a soil sample exceeding 1,000 ppm, the level considered hazardous waste. State Health analysis has found that children living near the Exide site have blood lead levels twice as high as the average in the rest of the county.

Exide made a deal with the federal government in 2015 to shut its facilities and pay $50 million for cleanup. But Exide has allegedly repeatedly failed to meet its legal obligations since then. The costs of cleanup have also mushroomed, and the state is footing the bill.

Williams reported that 1,606 parcels have been “cleaned up and restored” to date.

“What’s the timeline look like going forward?” Bloom asked.

“Our intent is just to maintain the pace of work,” Williams said. “The idea would be to ramp up now that spring is coming and to get even more than 100 properties done a month. So that’s our goal. … We’ll just keep going until we don’t have funds and then we’ll look for the other funds.”

When Bloom pressed Williams again for a timeframe, she said, “We’re talking more than three years. Three, four years.”

Grant Cope, a DTSC deputy director for site mitigation, said, “The costs are over budget at this point.”

Over Budget

Thus far, DTSC has spent $157 million in state funds allocated for the cleanup, leaving only $94 million for the remainder of the effort.

Cope said the largest driver for the increased costs is the structure of DTSC’s contracts with Parsons Environment & Infrastructure Group and NEC Construction.

The current contract is paid based on time and materials required, and has resulted in escalating charges “because they’re out in the field longer and they’re moving more material,” Cope said.

DTSC is hoping to move into a per-unit-price contract with Parsons to secure a set price for soil sampling and soil removal. According to Cope, restructuring the contract would reduce the price-per-parcel by about $12,000.

However, “nobody has signed on the dotted line, so we don’t know that that’s going to be possible,” he said.

“Why didn’t we think about the most efficient ways of doing it from the very beginning instead of looking at the most efficient ways later?” Santiago asked. “It’s difficult for me to understand how these things couldn’t have been caught day one in [terms of] knowing the most efficient ways to actually do a contract.”

Cope said it was his understanding that DTSC attempted to negotiate a different contract structure. But he said DTSC didn’t initially have enough information to devise a unit-price contract. Meanwhile, “people wanted to see shovels in the ground.”

He said the challenges have been many for DTSC. “This is one of the largest, most complex cleanups—if not the largest, most complex cleanup—that DTSC has done, and they have cleaned up hundreds and hundreds of sites all across the state.”

Furthermore, if the contractors’ estimate on a per-parcel basis was off by as little as “a couple hundred dollars … suddenly their exposure’s far beyond what their risk model would otherwise accept,” Cope said.

After a ten-second pause, Bloom asked, “Is that the answer?”

Cleanup Obstacles

Cope listed other factors contributing to increased costs, including scheduling changes and delays, changes in desired landscaping materials, pet boarding, and work interruptions, such as rain and unanticipated objects discovered in parcels.

DTSC claims that there are around 1,600 properties to which they have not been provided access because of “people who aren’t really responsive.”

“It’s amazing, but it’s true that they might not know about … that letter that [they] got really means that [they] should call that number,” Cope said.

“We don’t write anybody off until we’ve gone through a really exhaustive process of trying to get in touch with them,” Williams said. “We’re talking about seven attempts at engagement in some cases, and that includes certified letters.”

‘I Don’t Trust Them’

Terry Gonzalez-Cano, 48, a resident of Boyle Heights who lives within a mile of the Exide site, said she knows of a resident who wanted to get her property tested, but couldn’t get DTSC to come out and do it.

“They don’t have the experience or the know-how to handle a catastrophe of this magnitude,” she said. “I don’t trust them to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community.”

“If this were a situation happening in another part of Los Angeles, I guarantee you those people would have been all over your cases by now,” said Yvonne Martinez Watson, chair of the Environmental Justice Committee for Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. “This would not have been allowed to continue this long.”

The communities around the Exide site are mostly low-income and Latino.

“This is not acceptable. These people shouldn’t have to be coming up here and begging you for help. Something needs to be done, and something needs to be done right away,” Martinez Watson said.

Her comments were met with a hearty round of applause.

Epoch Times Photo
A sign outside a shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Commerce, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2020. (Chris Karr/The Epoch Times)

“There is no hope for me,” Gonzalez-Cano said. She grew up in the area and suffered from asthma and dizzy spells since childhood. Doctors discovered tumors in her uterus when she was 15. “There is no reversing the damage that’s been done to me, and I’m pretty sure I will not see the end of the cleanup.”

After the meeting adjourned, Joe Gonzalez, Gonzalez-Cano’s brother, told The Epoch Times that each one of the medical bracelets around his neck represents about $300 of lost wages.

“I don’t have any more sick leave,” he said. “One of my cancers took me about 11 and a half months to get over, and the last one took me over 7 months to get over. I burnt away about 2,400 hours of annual leave and sick leave combined.”

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said, “The problem that we have with Exide cleanup is it’s not going to go away. We’ll be here next year, we’ll be here next year, we’ll be here next year, we’ll be here next year.”

The final speaker of the evening was an elderly gentleman named Maximo. Too weak to stand, he addressed everyone in Spanish from the back of the room.

“For some time, my 7-year-old grandson has been saying to me, ‘Hey Grandpa, I can’t go play outside. My eyes are burning and I don’t know why,’” he said through a translator. “I have a lot of neighbors who have already died of cancer. … You need to go house by house. You need to check each family member and check our blood levels and see how we’re doing. First, go to the people, then go to the soil.”

This article has been updated to correct the location names for Resurrection Church and the Exide Technologies plant. The Epoch Times regrets the error.