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In an effort to show how transportation, open space, planning and other issues are intertwined with the health, culture, livability and strength of a community, Streetsblog and The California Endowment teamed to bring Streetsblog’s coverage to a hyper-local level in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman is Communities Editor for Streetsblog Los Angeles and oversees work in South Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. Her work and that of our former Boyle Heights-specific writer Kris Fortin can be found here. Contact Sahra at sahra[at]streetsblog.org or on twitter: @sahrasulaiman.

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Residents Debate Priorities for Mariachi Plaza at Second Design Workshop

Wednesday's design workshop looked at potential uses for the two Metro-owned lots at Mariachi Plaza. Map detail: Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Perkins + Will, DakeLuna

Last Wednesday’s design workshop looked at potential uses for the two Metro-owned lots at Mariachi Plaza. Map detail: Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Perkins + Will, DakeLuna

“If it wasn’t for Garage [Board Shop and Sk8 for Education program],” 9-year-old skater “Bite Size” told me, “I’d probably be hanging out with the wrong type.”

I looked at him. He really was adorably bite-sized as he stood next to a skateboard nearly as as tall as he was. It was hard to believe he was old enough to be worried about kicking it with the “wrong type,” but as both he and 10-year-old skater Jose Solano attested, there were a lot of older guys in their neighborhoods that had no problem with steering vulnerable kids in the wrong direction.

Screen shot of Enrique "Bite Size" Fino from a short film on The Garage by Bearwalk.

Screen shot of Enrique “Bite Size” Fino from a short film on The Garage by Bearwalk.

Because of that, both Bite Size and Jose were on a mission. They had prepared short speeches to give at last Wednesday’s workshop about the importance of creating an engaging space at Mariachi Plaza that would help inspire youth to stay in school and be their best selves.

When there wasn’t time for them to deliver it to the crowd of 60 or so participants that had come to work on the development guidelines for the Metro-owned lots at the plaza, they settled for delivering the speeches to me.

While he had been skating for four years, Bite Size said, it was the program at the Garage that had given him a place to go that was safe and free of negative influences. And, he said, it had helped him get his grades up by requiring he did his homework.

A wink and a laugh from Garage founder Jerry Carrera indicated that perhaps Bite Size’s grades were not quite as high as he was suggesting.

There was room for improvement, Bite Size acknowledged. But he was doing much better than he had been.

“I go there every day,” he grinned. “I love Pizza Fridays!”

Solano echoed Bite Size’s enthusiasm and reassured me that, since he started the Garage’s program, he had raised his grades from Ds and Fs to “straight-up As” and was motivated to keep doing well.

Carrera and several of his skaters were not at the workshop, as one might have assumed, to ask that part of Mariachi Plaza be turned into a skate park.

What they were looking for was to preserve some open space at the site, be it for skating or some other form of fitness or play, and that Metro look at creative partnerships (possibly with non-profits) to make sure that any development serve as much as an investment in the people of the community as an investment in the site.

Gesturing toward the youth while reporting his table’s ideas for the site back to the larger group, he asked, “Where are these kids gonna play?”

“We want green space for kids today,” he concluded. “They are the future of tomorrow.”

It was a point well taken.

A woman reports her table's ideas back to larger group. Although many present were housing proponents, they were adamant that any development speak to the culture and multi-generational nature of the community. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A woman reports her table’s ideas back to larger group. Although many present were housing proponents, they were adamant that any development speak to the culture and multi-generational nature of the community. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Nearly 40 percent of the area’s population is under the age of 18 and they don’t have that many places to hang out. Boyle Heights is quite park poor and when the youth try to access a space like Mariachi Plaza because it is relatively safe, in a central location, accessible, and lit at night, they are often chased out by law enforcement.

With more youth congregating along 1st Street since Carrera opened a second skate shop there last fall (his original shop is in East L.A.), and more folks using the plaza as ground zero for reclaiming their streets (like the 700 women who participated in the Amigas Who Run event this past weekend), it is even more imperative that the next iteration of the plaza be more welcoming to all ages and all uses.

Because Boyle Heights is a multi-generational community, the question of carving out space for users of all ages had been on the minds of many participants, even those who were there to speak up on behalf of seniors and other vulnerable members of the population.

At the table where I sat, residents discussed the importance of ancillary uses, including a walking path, lots of shade trees, a play area, seating areas, street vending, music (particularly mariachi), and murals — both cultural and street art-style — that reflected the culture and composition of the community. A range of amenities, they felt, would keep the plaza active, beautiful, and welcoming to all ages.

The interest in preserving and activating open space was so great, in fact, that many participants came down in favor of closing off some or all of Bailey Street (below).

Participants discussed the potential for closing off part or all of Bailey Street to make a pedestrian plaza, potential space for street vendors and open-air markets, or fitness area.

Participants discussed the potential for closing off part or all of Bailey Street to make a pedestrian plaza, potential space for street vendors and open-air markets, fitness area, or any number of other uses.

The portion in lighter orange between the two lots (above) is the minimum area that participants and the design team considered converting to open space.

Being able to use that section (or more) of the street would allow for more uses to be packed into the project. Residents wouldn’t have to choose between the structures they appeared to be most in favor of — affordable housing for seniors or very low-income residents, a grocery market, or a laundromat — and the open green space they were desperate for. And it might even allow for some of the more practical amenities many have called for, like public restrooms.

One gentleman even suggested a single structure bridging both lots in such a way as to allow for more housing to be packed in while leaving Bailey Street open (and creating a tunnel that offered shade).

As always, the question of affordable housing touched off heated conversation among participants. Read more…

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Planning for Mariachi Plaza Begins Again; How it Will Tie in to Other Area Projects Remains Unclear

Resident Jose and ELACC organizer Carla de Paz report back to workshop attendees regarding discussions had at their table. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Resident Jose and ELACC organizer Carla de Paz report back to workshop attendees in both Spanish and English regarding discussions had at their table. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A jacuzzi.

Yes, Petronila Lozano, community member and volunteer with Union de Vecinos, repeated in Spanish, a jacuzzi with beautiful trees around it.

The Metro lot at Mariachi Plaza could be a place where both the elders and the youth of the community could relax and enjoy themselves, she winked, sketching out her ideal vision on the back of a handout: shade trees around a fountain, seating areas, a laundromat on the first floor of a three or four-story structure and affordable residences above, possibly with space reserved for a gym where seniors could dance and be fit.

Although the only one suggesting a public jacuzzi at Saturday’s design workshop for the two lots at the Mariachi Plaza site (below, in orange), Lozano was not alone in wanting to see the lots be home to multiple, creative uses.

The design workshop looked at potential uses for the two Metro-owned lots at Mariachi Plaza. Map detail: Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Perkins + Will, DakeLuna

The design workshop looked at potential uses for the two Metro-owned lots at Mariachi Plaza. Map detail: Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Perkins + Will, DakeLuna

The approximately 60 stakeholders in attendance were interested in seeing everything from a cultural center to a mariachi museum to a children’s playground to a space for street vendors to assisted living for seniors to affordable housing to a grocery market to after-school programming for youth to an event hall at the site.

The variety of aspirations, in some ways, pose something of a challenge to Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio, Perkins + Will, Dake Luna, the urban design/architecture consultant team Metro hired to create development guidelines for the Metro-owned lots.

In essence, it will be very hard to please everyone.

At the same time, there were a number of long-standing common threads underlying most suggestions that do offer potential developers a solid set of parameters they should be prepared to work within.

Namely, people want to see a development that speaks to and elevates the culture of the community, prioritizes the existing residents (particularly those of lower and very low income), embraces the multi-generational nature of the community, contributes to the local economy by complementing rather than competing with existing businesses (particularly along 1st Street), and serves as a gathering place, site for creative/artistic expression, and symbol of both the community’s heritage and its future potential.

And it must do all these things while bolstering the local economy in the form of local jobs. One of the most pressing concerns regularly raised about the planned affordable housing projects is that the area’s very low-income residents will struggle to access it (see more on why, here). People in Boyle Heights tend to work a lot, but there are few good-paying jobs in the area. “Work” for the working poor may mean juggling a few informal jobs, vending either full time or on the side, and/or putting in long hours, sometimes six days a week, only to earn enough to just get by. Formal, steady part-time jobs for youth looking to help their parents or save up money for college are practically non-existent.

An ideal project, consequently, will work to safeguard the community’s cultural heritage and bolster the potential of the very people that make it so unique.

Piece of cake, right? Read more…

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“Ovaries so Big…” that They’ve Got Their Own Documentary

Ovas Taryn Randle and Maryann Aguirre speak with the crew working on the documentary about the group. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Ovas Taryn Randle and Maryann Aguirre speak with the crew working on the documentary about the group. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The Ovarian Psyco-Cycles have been a game-changer in the Los Angeles cycling landscape. And now, with a documentary featuring the stories of three of their members set to debut at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, they are essentially announcing that they are here to stay. Y con ganas.*

The Ovas first burst into the cycling community’s consciousness in 2012, when former Streetsblog writer Kris Fortin wrote a two-part introduction to a group of bad-ass womyn of color with “ovaries so big, [they] don’t need no fucking balls.” (Part two is here)

Fortin’s exploration of the life challenges that had brought the womyn together and the sisterhood that grew from cycling and reclaiming the streets as a group elicited cheers from readers here and around the country.

Then the Ovas decided to hold a “Clitoral Mass” bike ride to celebrate their two-year anniversary and some folks lost their damn minds.

While the idea of carving out space for womyn and womyn-identified folks — particularly those of color — who don’t feel their experiences are validated or welcome in other cycling spaces is not terribly controversial right now, conversations around equity, inclusion, and the mobility of those on the margins had yet to really take root in the livable streets movement. So, the idea of a female (identified)-centric ride caused a bit of a stir.

The Ovas were accused of exclusion by some and of misandry by a (thankfully) small minority of disgruntled men. Some of the critics threatened to show up and crash the ride. A few even took it upon themselves to organize a counter-balancing ride for “Brovarian Psychos,” where those poor and oppressed (and grammatically-challenged) souls seeking to promote “man-ism, jism, mens’ rights, reform of family court, selective service, anti-male stereotypes, to counter-manginas and white knights, and restore balance to the force” could finally feel supported.

Despite all the foolishness, the Ovas’ first event went off peacefully. And instead of the world ending, the ride became something of an institution — a day of sisterhood and solidarity around which riders from around the Southland and beyond were willing to adjust their summer schedules so they could be sure to be in town. It even inspired a national movement and, in 2013, saw sister rides spring up in Oakland, Toronto, New York City, Atlanta, and Chicago. Last year’s ride was no different. Hundreds — many of them new to cycling — showed up in the heat to spend a day exploring the city, sharing meals, dancing at pit stops, and engaging in conversations around social justice.

Riders circle up for the 2015 Clitoral Mass event. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Riders circle up for the 2015 Clitoral Mass event. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The Ovas’ visibility has helped change stereotypes about who bikes and complicated the conversation around what cycling and, more broadly, accessing the public space, means to different communities. Read more…

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Gov. Jerry Brown Asks Legislature for $176.6 Million to Expedite Lead Cleanup around Exide Plant

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

The office of Governor Jerry Brown sent out a press release earlier today announcing his intention to “pursue an additional appropriation” of $176.6 million for lead testing and clean-up in the 1.7-mile radius around Exide Technologies’ now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling facility in Vernon (seen above).

The major allotment of funds — to be comprised, in part, of a loan from the General Fund — would allow for the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to pick up the pace of remediation in the surrounding communities while the state “vigorously pursue[d] Exide and other potential responsible parties to recover the costs of this cleanup.”

Questions about the pace and scope of what could potentially be the largest toxic cleanup of its kind in state history have been popular topics with a number of news outlets lately. The rapid response to the methane gas leak at Porter Ranch — including the effort to relocate families until the leak could be plugged — contrasted dramatically with the decades of inaction with which state and local agencies met working-class immigrant communities’ complaints about Exide’s toxic emissions and violations.

The buzz around that discrepancy, DTSC Director Barbara Lee reassured reporters in a press call this afternoon, was not the reason that the governor was taking this rather major step now.

“One does not walk into the governor’s office and say, ‘I’d like $176 million'” without having done lots of careful background work on a proposal, she said.

DTSC, she continued, had spent a few months assessing the costs incurred thus far in the cleanup process, estimating how many of the 10,000 properties within the 1.7-mile radius of the plant might need remediation, and, in response to community demands for economic investment in the area, calculating how funds could best be used to both benefit the local economy and secure a cleaner future for all.

If made available quickly, Lee said, the funds would allow for 8500 properties to be tested within the next year (this is in addition to the funds already available to test the other 1500 properties). And they would allow for the cleanup of the 2500 residences, schools, parks, and daycare centers DTSC estimated could be contaminated enough to warrant remediation. Five of the seven parks and 16 of the 26 schools that fall within the 1.7-mile radius have been tested so far; the remainder should be tested later this spring. Parkways — the strips of grass between the sidewalk and the curb — unfortunately will not be tested as part of this effort. The priority, Lee reiterated, was to identify and remediate the areas children and pregnant women were most likely to come into contact with contaminated soil.

DTSC would also use the funds to do capacity building, workforce development, and job skills training, Lee continued, to be able to involve as many local businesses and community members in the cleanup process as possible. Putting dollars back into the community by training residents to help restore and revitalize the communities they live in, she said, was a primary objective. Read more…

Via Streetsblog California
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Watch Two Bridges Being Taken Down

A blimp, a bridge, and waiting barges. Image: screengrab from Caltrans' live webcast of Bay Bridge takedown

A blimp, a bridge, and waiting barges. Image: screengrab from Caltrans’ live webcast of Bay Bridge takedown

Caltrans was involved in two very different bridge demolitions last week, and has posted time-lapse footage of both of them.

In the first, L.A.’s iconic 6th Street bridge is crunched by big machines while water hoses tamp down the dust, with downtown L.A. glimmering in the background. The footage compresses tw0 days’ work into three minutes, lending the process a jangly, frenetic pace.

In contrast, timelapse of the Oakland Bay Bridge deconstruction is almost meditative. The circa-1936 bridge, already replaced by a new one, has been slowly taken apart over several years. Last week Caltrans removed the first of its trussed segments, lowering it onto two barges over the course of about fourteen hours. Caltrans’ timelapse compresses the work into almost two minutes, turning boats into swirling insects and animating the waters of San Francisco Bay.

The 2,500-ton steel bridge segments are being floated to shore for dismantling and recycling, with some of the material going to artists who applied for it through the Oakland Museum.

Rumor has it there may be a chance to grab a souvenir of the 6th Street bridge.

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Hide Your Wife! Hide Your Kids! Freeway Closure for the Demolition of the 6th St. Bridge is upon Us!

The bridge is closed at 6th Street. (looking east) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The bridge is closed at 6th Street. (looking east) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Hide your wife! Hide your kids! And try to hide the bitter tears the L.A. Times believes you will probably shed when you struggle to visit “downtown’s trendiest bars and pubs” this weekend because THE 101 FREEWAY IS CLOSING FOR 40 HOURS starting at 10 p.m. tonight!

Click to visit the 6th St. Viaduct project page with specific closure information.

Click image to visit the 6th St. Viaduct project page with specific closure information.

Between 10 p.m. Friday night and 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon, a 2.5-mile section of the 101 freeway will be closed so that the section of the 6th Street bridge spanning the freeway can be demolished. That means that the 101 will be closed from the 10-101 split to the 5-10-101 interchange just south of downtown Los Angeles (see map above). Drivers traveling west from the Pomona area will not be able to access the 101 from the 60.

To soothe car-bound Angelenos’ soon-to-be frazzled nerves, the mayor released his version of a slow jam yesterday, with the help of members of Roosevelt High School’s talented jazz band.

Whether it is all one would hope for from a mayoral slow jam I am guessing is probably a matter of taste. But it does feature a very sultry come hither that Metro desperately needs to figure out how to work into its promotional materials more often: “If you’ve got to get out on the town… remember, Metro is there for you, all day and all night.”

While it is true that the closure of the freeway will likely cause some headaches, much like with the carmaggedons that have come before it, Angelenos will surely survive and possibly emerge better people for it.

More painful to most Angelenos — especially those that grew up around the bridge — will be the loss of such an iconic structure. Not just because of its storied place in cinema, but because of the escape it provided for so many.

It was a peaceful place where you could get up above the fray and get some perspective on yourself and your relationship to your community and your city. It was a place from which you could feel like you were watching over your neighborhood. And it welcomed you home with open arches.

The bridge and some good-bye graffiti. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The bridge and some good-bye graffiti. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

For many on the eastside, the bridge also marked a dividing line. The 3500 foot span between the city center and the community served as a sort of metaphor for how removed from each other two neighborhoods could be.

Read more…

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City and Residents Debate Fate of Lot at 1st and Boyle

The lot at 1st and Boyle. to the right (across Boyle), an affordable housing project is being built. At a lot adjacent to Mariachi Plaza (where image was taken from) development will like come in the form of commercial space. (Google maps)

The lot at 1st and Boyle. Behind the green fencing to the right, an affordable housing project is being built. At a lot adjacent to Mariachi Plaza (where image was taken from) development will like come in the form of commercial space. (Google maps)

“Dots are not a very democratic way to do things.”

If there was a message Boyle Heights residents wanted to send to the city regarding their community outreach process last night, that seemed to be it.

They were referring to the colored stickers planners often ask residents to use to signal their planning priorities. In this case, residents were asked to choose between land-use options for the CRA-owned vacant lot at 1st and Boyle that sits across the street from Mariachi Plaza. Did they want to see an open space/plaza-type project, mixed-use development (commercial space on the ground floor, residential or office spaces on the upper floors), or town home-style live-work spaces?

The residents’ answers seemed to be, in no particular order, “none of the above,” “this is a scam,” “don’t we need to know who this housing would be for before we vote on it?” “we need more parking,” and “why didn’t you come to us for suggestions before coming up with these plans?”

Being asked to put dots next to a particular poster board, argued several people, was akin to asking the community to rubber stamp the city’s suggestions to make it look like genuine dialogue had taken place. And they weren’t going to stand for it.

Planners tried explaining that the proposed projects seen on the poster boards were only suggested land uses, not an effort to designate specific businesses or structures for the site.

Coming in with flexible suggestions for land uses — to the city — made perfect sense. For one, even if residents hated the proposals, visuals gave them something to respond to — a common ground for discussion to begin around land uses.

Second, as Rocio Hernandez, Boyle Heights Area Director for Jose Huizar, told the crowd, the city is aware that the community has no interest in hearing promises that would not be kept. The land-use suggestions planners were offering were ones they felt the CRA would be likely to approve as well as ones that would help the city fetch a fair price for the land. As the city itself does not own the land, it can’t just use the land as it sees fit.

Third, the city has a very limited time frame in which to get a project for the site off the ground.

Read more…

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Proyecto Jardin Evicted from Community Garden at White Memorial; Protest Planned for Saturday

Dancers participate in a celebration of culture and healing at Proyecto Jardin. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Dancers participate in a celebration of culture and healing at Proyecto Jardin. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

This Sunday, January 31st, the eviction of the community gardening collective known as Proyecto Jardin from the garden space behind White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights will mark a significant change for the neighborhood. In a community that has felt very much at the mercy of externally-driven change in recent years, many residents are determined not to let this shift go unchallenged.

They acknowledge that the land does indeed belong to White Memorial. The 1/3-acre lot was first transformed into a garden in 1999 at the behest of Dr. Robert Krochmol, a resident at White Memorial at the time. And they understand that the hospital does technically have the right to determine how its land will be used and hire whom they wish to administer operations there.

But they also believe that the community has some claim to it because the garden has functioned as a communally-structured community space for most of the last 17 years and because it was local volunteers, advocates, artists, educators, and students that worked to turn the former eyesore into a lush, green oasis of health, culture, creativity, and healing. The special symbolism that the garden holds as a safe and nurturing haven in the community’s collective imagination is tightly linked to all those folks that worked so hard to forge bonds between people and place over all those years. It can’t be easily replicated by moving the garden to a new site.

Under the leadership of Daisy Tonantzin in the early 2000s, the garden offered residents the opportunity to tap into traditional forms of healing tied to their heritage. In 2005, Tonantzin formalized her efforts to preserve traditional methods with the launch of Caracol Marketplace — a monthly gathering of artisans featuring food, handmade jewelry, healing herbs and products, art, dance, and music. Caracol Marketplace has since moved to Tropico de Nopal Art Space and Gallery, but its presence in the early days helped reinforce the sense that the garden space represented so much more than just a nice spot to grow vegetables.

Under the more recent administration of Irene Peña, activities at the garden have continued to be guided by the four pillars of community health — good food, physical activity, traditional healing arts, and community building — and adhered to a communal approach (families have plots in communal beds, help take care of each others’ plots, and share in the larger harvest). And it has served as a site for community celebrations, spiritual rituals and reconnections, youth engagement and mentoring, and the sharing of knowledge among the generations.

Pauletta Pierce paints children's faces for Dia de los Muertos. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Pauletta Pierce paints children’s faces for Dia de los Muertos. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

But keeping the garden afloat hasn’t always been easy, Peña has acknowledged. Read more…

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Whittier Boulevard to See Up to $1 Million in Streetscape Improvements

Trash accumulates under an underpass along Whittier Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Trash and debris accumulates under the 60 Freeway along Whittier Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Complaints about the condition of Whittier Boulevard are common among youth that regularly walk from the southern end of Boyle Heights to Roosevelt High School and back. And they’re only one of several groups of schoolkids that must cross and/or move along Whittier on a daily basis — a handful of schools and recreational centers straddle the three-quarters of a mile between Lorena and Soto Streets.

The section of Whittier slated for improvements is in gray. (Google maps)

The section of Whittier slated for improvements is in gray. (Google maps)

The fast-moving and heavily trafficked boulevard serves as a cut-through connection for those commuting or transporting goods between East L.A., downtown, and beyond. So, crossing it on two feet can be hazardous. Drivers tend not to slow down for folks trying to use the crosswalk at Orme, for example, and can take corners quickly in their eagerness to get to the freeways.

The way in which the street alternates almost randomly between industrial, residential, commercial, and school zones can make things even more uncomfortable for pedestrians. Some sections of sidewalk are pleasant and active, while others are in poor condition, are poorly lit, and are strewn with debris and trash. Students who must walk the lengthy underpass where the 60 Freeway stretches diagonally over Whittier have reported being disconcerted by feeling so isolated, especially when they have been hassled by homeless folks struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

The street could use some help, in other words. And help appears to be on the way.

On January 20, the City Council approved Councilmember Jose Huizar’s motion to use up to $1 million in bond monies to launch a redesign of the corridor between Boyle Avenue and Indiana Street.

It’s an investment that is long overdue. Read more…

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Today in Exide: DTSC Begins 2nd Phase of Residential Clean-up; Releases DEIR and Draft Closure Plan for Vernon Facility

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

Last week, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) began a second round of clean-ups of lead-contaminated soil in the residential areas around Exide Technologies’ now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling facility. The Vernon plant and serial violator of environmental regulations cut a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in March, 2015, to close up shop in exchange for avoiding criminal prosecution. As part of the closure process, Exide must clean up toxic waste at its former facility as well as lead-contaminated soil at residences, schools, and parks surrounding the plant.

Begun last year, the first round of residential clean-ups targeted the 219 properties found within the original Northern and Southern Assessment Areas — areas straddling Boyle Heights, East L.A., and Maywood that air modeling determined would be most likely affected by Exide’s lead emissions (outlined in light blue, above). More than 10,000 tons of contaminated soil was ultimately removed from a total of 186 properties.

Challenges in Cleaning up Residential Properties

While last week’s launch of the second round of clean-ups does mark an important milestone, it is only the beginning of the potentially massive project that lies ahead. This past August, the preliminary results of soil testing in expanded areas to the north and south of the plant suggested that Exide’s emissions may have deposited lead dust over as many as 10,000 homes within a 1.3 to 1.7-mile radius of the facility (above map).

Only 146 properties in the Expanded Assessment Areas have been tested thus far, with 50 being prioritized for immediate clean-up. And while 2,800 letters have been sent out to residences within the expanded areas, it is not clear what the timeline will be for following up on those letters and getting properties tested and/or cleaned. Nor is it clear when DTSC will have sufficient funds to perform a wider clean-up.

Per an order, Exide is on the hook for cleaning up any home where lead levels exceed 400 parts per million and homes with bare soil where levels exceed 80 parts per million (the level at which the state recommends further health screenings). But the settlement reached last November initially set aside just $9 million for residential clean-ups. As clean-ups cost about $40,000 per property, those funds only cover approximately 225 sites. And, as of the end of October, DTSC had already used up $8 million of those funds. DTSC was able to secure an additional $5 million from Exide earlier this spring and $7 million in emergency funds from the state in August. But those funds are nowhere near enough to cover testing and clean-ups in the much wider range of territory Exide is thought to have contaminated.

Funding issues aside, the actual clean-up process itself has also had some challenges. Residents have complained that parkways adjacent to contaminated yards were not cleaned and are concerned that, should the contractors have to return to clean the parkways at some point, the dust kicked up could contaminate the yards that had just been cleaned. Advocates have also argued that DTSC is not doing enough to inform residents about the option of having the interiors of their homes cleaned, that it is doing a poor job of letting people know of the extent to which they are at risk from harmful toxins, and that the process is not moving nearly fast enough, given the potential harm. And officials from Commerce — frustrated that they had been overlooked despite their location just to the east of the plant — suggested they may conduct their own testing rather than wait for DTSC.

In an effort to allay some of these fears and promote greater transparency, DTSC has drafted a community engagement plan and meets regularly with an advisory group comprised of community members and advocates and representatives of elected officials and relevant government agencies. It also released the Interim Remedial Measures Work Plan, which offers a detailed discussion of how contaminated soil from the 50 yards prioritized for clean-ups will be safely removed and trucked to distant landfills over the next six months.

Cleaning up Exide’s 15-acre Site in Vernon

Other new documents released and up for comment include Exide’s Draft Closure Plan and the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) (full DEIR, here).

The 264-page Closure Plan  — needed to ensure health and safety will be protected before the dismantling and decontamination can begin at the 15-acre site — is a very long time coming. [See the Executive Summary, here, appendices, here.] Read more…