In Los Angeles, California, CALmatters.org
- Struggling with what officials call the largest and most expensive toxic contamination in California history, embattled state regulators have changed the formula for assessing the level of lead-laced soil in residential areas—a move that could result in a significant number of homes falling off the priority cleanup list.
The little-noticed switch has confused residents living around the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in southeast Los Angeles(1) and raised suspicions that those with high levels of lead could be bumped so far down the cleanup list that the state will run out of cleanup money before it helps them.
Two lawmakers who represent the predominantly Latino working class neighborhoods promised action after CALmatters questioned them about it.
“I was not aware of this change in process … but will conduct my due diligence to understand the factors now being considered,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) said in a statement. “We know the lead leaked by Exide is harmful to the community; this is not debatable.”
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said the state Department of Toxic Substances Control in charge of the cleanup is already in “deep distress,” citing a recent annual report that “shows numerous deficiencies.” He also said he hadn’t been informed of the formula change, telling CALmatters: “There needs to be more transparency how they make these changes, why they are making this change, when did they make this change and will these changes have an adverse impact on the communities that surround the Exide facility.
One year ago the state—using a formula that made a home eligible for priority cleanup if any one of its several soil samples showed a hot spot of contamination—had identified 208 homes for priority cleanup (and cleaned some of them). But then in July it jettisoned that approach and substituted a federal formula, calculated primarily by averaging all the soil samples from a property. As a result, even though twice as many homes had then been tested, the rule change shrunk the priority list to 52 properties.
Testing has continued ever since, with the department saying it has sampled more than 6,700 properties to determine which have enough lead contamination to qualify for cleanup, and which of those have concentrations high enough to earn them a place on the priority list.
But how many properties are eligible for the priority list is a mystery—department spokesman Jorge Moreno said the most recent number he could provide was from last summer.
The state toxics department allowed the Exide battery plant to operate for 33 years under a temporary permit, despite documenting dozens of environmental violations at the 15-acre site. During its operation, the plant spewed chemicals into the air, including lead, which settled into local yards, playgrounds and gardens.
Nobody knows for certain what the price tag for comprehensive cleanup will be. Thus far the average cost per property is $2,000 to test and $42,000 to clean. Given the expectation that many of the more than 10,000 properties being tested will qualify for remediation, and factoring in administrative costs, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and others have said cleanup costs could rise above $400 million—an estimate the state toxics department hasn’t disputed.
But the state has allocated nowhere near that amount. Last year—two years after Exide first reported finding lead in the soil of homes near the plant—Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature committed $176 million to clean up 2,500 of the most contaminated parcels within a 1.7 mile radius of the plant.
In the months since, the state toxics department has been working on the required draft plan and environmental impact review. Department officials said the stalled cleanup could resume as early as this summer. Full cleanup, assuming the funds are found to do it, could take many years.
Meanwhile thousands of families continue to live with lead-contaminated soil around their homes, trying their best to keep their kids and grandkids away from it while they wait.