Assembly Bill 1024 (AB 1024) would fund the ongoing clean up of up to 10,000 homes polluted by the closed Exide Technologies battery facility in the city of Vernon, south of downtown L.A. Residents in the area say they continue to suffer the ill effects of dangerous amounts of lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals released into the soil by the company’s recycling plant over the decades.
“This vote is going to decide not only our lives—the people who are still living in this contamination—but it’s also going to decide how many future generations are going to be affected by all this,” local resident Terry Gonzalez-Cano, 49, told The Epoch Times.
The bill would allocate over $420 million to clean up more than 7,800 properties—including 31 contaminated child care facilities, parks, and schools—and another $119 for future closure and onsite corrective action at the shuttered facility. The funds would be distributed in the 2021–2022 fiscal year to the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
The announcement follows an October 2020 report, released by the state auditor, noting that the effort begun by the DTSC in 2017 to clean 3,200 of the most contaminated properties is significantly behind schedule, and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
The report estimated that the total cost of the cleanup would be around $650 million—nearly $400 million more than the original allocation. The auditor found the original DTSC estimate was inaccurate because it failed to factor in “predictable costs” like inflation and legally required wage payments.
DTSC Director Meredith Williams responded that the department was committed to the efforts, but currently lacked funding to clean up the remaining 4,600 properties.
“For this cleanup, DTSC has cleaned up more properties, more quickly than any other residential lead cleanup in the nation,” Williams wrote in an Oct. 7 letter. She added that the department had completed over 2,000 cleanups as of Oct. 2, 2020, ramping up to 24 properties per week as of Sept. 21.
The ongoing process has left Gonzalez-Cano and other area residents frustrated.
“Not only are we made sick by the contamination, but now we have to pay for our own cleanup, basically,” she said. “It’s our tax dollars that are paying for it. And now, we are basically at the mercy of all these politicians who have to vote to see if this money even goes through.”
Lifelong Health Impacts
Gonzalez-Cano lives in Boyle Heights, which is about a mile from the Exide site. She grew up in the area, and has suffered from asthma and dizzy spells since she was a child. At age 15, doctors discovered tumors in her uterus.
“I’ve progressively gotten worse, but I already knew that was going to happen,” she said.
Recently, excruciating pain caused her to undergo a procedure to repair her spine, which she said is deteriorating in three different places.
“They’re trying to repair that, and unfortunately, it’s not working as well as I hope,” she said.
Gonzalez-Cano’s brother, area resident Joe Gonzalez, 63, also has cancer. Gonzalez-Cano said her brother’s cancer had metastasized recently, spreading to his colon and “all over the place now.”
Last year, Gonzalez appeared before a State Assembly committee to explain how his health had been impacted as a result of the flawed cleanup.
“This is a public health crisis. DTSC is letting us down tremendously. They do not have an expedient nor efficient plan,” he said at the January 2020 meeting. “I can’t get angry about this anymore because I’m dying anyhow.”
Grant Cope, DTSC deputy director for site mitigation, acknowledged at the same meeting that the DTSC’s cleanup efforts were over-budget, behind schedule, and plagued by many challenges.
“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 across the state,” said Cope.
At the time, DTSC had spent $157 million of the $251 million that had originally been allotted for the cleanup.
No End in Sight
Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) introduced the new legislation for funding on Feb. 18, along with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), and Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles). He emphasized the damage caused by Exide’s “corporate criminal pollution” and DTSC’s cleanup delays.
“[It’s] left our children to live and play in lead-soaked soil,” Santiago said in a statement. “AB 1024 will finally fund a complete clean-up of Exide’s pollution while implementing transparency and accountability protocols for DTSC to prevent any further delay.”
Gonzalez released a statement calling for stronger enforcement policies and transparency measures to prevent such environmental injustices in the future.
“Our community must no longer have to suffer the detrimental health consequences,” she said. “Families need peace of mind and the assurance that their homes and backyards will not remain poisoned with dangerous levels of arsenic or lead that could lead to cancer, respiratory illness, learning problems and other chronic diseases.”
For Gonzalez-Cano, that peace of mind isn’t so easily attained.
“DTSC, at every turn, has made the worst decision on every level about everything. So to give them that much more money is a little worrisome, that they still have the ability to make these decisions. They have already proven—to all of us—that they are incapable of … making decisions in the best interest of the community,” she said.
“Nowhere else can you have a job, completely fail at it, show utter neglect and incompetence, and be partly responsible for people getting sick and dying, and you can still keep your job and nothing happens to you.”
While she remains hopeful that the bill will eventually pass, Gonzalez-Cano doubts she’ll be alive to see the end of the cleanup.
“That’s one of the things that we were really hoping for, but I don’t really think that’s gonna happen anymore,” she said. “It will probably [be] decades before this is even completed—if it ever is.”
The bill will likely be heard in April in the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials.
City News Service contributed to this report.