Gov. Brown Directs $176.6 Million to Expedite Cleanup in Communities around Exide

The Expanded Assessment Areas where DTSC conducted testing to determine the extent of lead contamination from the Exide facility in Vernon. As many as 10,000 homes may have been affected within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant. Source: DTSC
The Expanded Assessment Areas where DTSC conducted testing to determine the extent of lead contamination from the Exide facility in Vernon. As many as 10,000 homes may have been affected within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant. Source: DTSC

According to a press release, California Governor Jerry Brown just signed legislation directing $176.6 million “to expedite and expand [lead] testing and cleanup of residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks around the former Exide Technologies facility in Vernon, California.”

The legislation came in the form of A.B. 118, by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and S.B. 93, by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

The funds — a loan from the General Fund — will allow the state to expedite soil testing within the 1.7-mile radius of the Exide Technologies facility and remediation of contaminated soil “where lead levels are the highest and potential exposure the greatest.”

That last disclaimer suggests that $176.6 million may be enough to get the ball rolling on residential testing and cleanups, but not enough to finish the job.

Last fall, the Department of Toxic Substances Control was already running out of funds to continue testing and remediation, after spending just $8 million to put together a work plan and test and clean up fewer than 200 properties.

While the average cost of testing and cleaning up area properties — originally estimated to be at about $40,000 per site — may come down over time, the fact that as many as 10,000 may need remediation means the final bill may be more than double what was allotted today.

And it does indeed appear that most properties around the plant will need remediation, if current figures are anything to go by.

Of the 758 properties the Department for Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has sampled thus far, only five have not needed cleanup. And, according to KPCC, of the 382 properties the County Department of Public Health (DPH) tested, 354 needed remediation, with 215 of them registering levels between the cleanup threshold of 80 parts per million (ppm) and 399 ppm of lead, and 139 having more dangerous levels hovering between 400 and 999 ppm.

The money also does not cover any of the costs borne by residents whose health was damaged by exposure to lead or other contaminants emitted by Exide over the decade-plus that it operated without a formal permit and regularly violated emissions standards. Nor, to the best of my understanding, will it cover the costs of any studies to investigate the longer-term health impacts on the surrounding communities.

But it is a good start. As is the governor’s reiteration of a commitment to conduct a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of the cleanup process.

In disbursing these funds, the state is banking on Exide to reimburse them for the costs of the cleanup. The extent to which that will be possible remains to be seen. In its own study conducted last summer, Exide downplayed its responsibility for lead contamination in the areas surrounding the Vernon plant, declaring that, beyond the immediate footprint of the facility, “Exide’s estimated contributions to soil lead concentrations are no longer statistically distinguishable from [existing] background concentrations.”

In layman’s terms, that essentially translates to, “Good luck trying to hold us accountable.”

For more information on DTSC’s testing and cleanup efforts in the communities near Exide, click here. For full text of the two bills signed today, visit http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/. Please keep an eye out for a longer-form story on Exide coming soon. In the meanwhile, see our extensive coverage on Exide’s confounding and often confusing case. More about the draft environmental impact report regarding Exide’s closure plan is here. More about the closure process, the lead testing process, and the challenge of linking Exide to the lead contamination can be found here. If you’d like to learn about why the community is adamant that state agencies be held accountable for allowing Exide to commit as many environmental crimes as it did, please see here, here, here, and here. If you’d like to know more about why the plant was shut down in the first place, please see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

  • Wait, cleaning up lead pollution requires review under the California Environmental Quality Act? Does that sound crazy to anyone else? Why are we using scarce cleanup money to write reports about the negative environmental effects of cleaning up pollution, which also has the effect of delaying the actual cleanup? It almost sounds like a parody of bureaucracy, but then you realize that it’s really happening :(

  • sahra

    There are two reviews for this case…one for the plant itself and one for the community cleanup. It isn’t as crazy as it sounds…and I know it might sound crazy. The community actually thought so too, at first, but then rethought that position. The EIR for the plant is incredibly necessary because of the potential contamination from the dismantling of the plant, disposal of massive amounts of equipment and waste that are difficult to move in a whole state, and the trucking of waste and dust through neighborhoods. The review for the residential cleanup might be helpful in determining the source of the lead as well as making sure that proper procedures are followed during the cleanup and that lead dust is not spread throughout the community. When you have not had attention to that sort of detail, you have cases like that of Jordan Downs, where contaminated soil was excavated and then left uncovered (and easily accessible through a chainlink fence) during a hot, windy stretch over the summer. For a community that has been coated with all manner of toxins for decades, having a proper review means having a little more security that the cleanup will be thorough and complete.

  • Fair enough. It looks like Section 15330 of the CEQA Guidelines would not exempt the residential cleanup since it would cost more than $1 million etc. My CEQA sense just went off is all. There are a lot of ironies in that law, like solar plants having to do Environmental Impact Reports because of their impact on habitat, even though they have a really positive impact on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, or infill development projects getting shot down over aesthetics or traffic even though they reduce vehicle travel per capita. I find myself frustrated by CEQA more often than I find myself being glad it exists.

    I just hope Boyle Heights gets something out of this exercise besides a 5,000 page report and years of delay. That Exide situation is pretty crazy. Makes you wonder how many other Exides are out there, and whether Exide will actually pay for its mess or dodge responsibility somehow.

  • sahra

    Indeed, CEQA is frustrating…like the fact that fracking and drilling tend to be exempt from review. There are fears that a review will slow down the cleanup process, and, that if Exide can fight it long enough, the 10-year window within which the DOJ can crack down on Exide and make sure it is taking care of business would expire. But the fact that there was a DOJ settlement in the first place may be part of the reason we need a thorough review… with the settlement, all investigation into Exide’s environmental crimes stopped. So, whether they did more damage than has been accounted for thus far remains to be seen. It’s a mess.

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