LOS ANGELES (CN) — For years, the Exide battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County spewed lead dust on the predominantly Latino neighborhoods surrounding it.
Residents have complained of respiratory illness, pregnancy complications, rampant cancer diagnoses and an untold number of people who have died. Exide Technologies abandoned the plant last month and now the question is who is going to clean up their mess.
During a virtual hearing Monday, California legislators reviewed how ongoing cleanup operations have gone over budget and over deadline. The progress has been anything but smooth.
Cleanup of the communities surrounding the now-abandoned plant has fallen at the feet of California taxpayers after Exide Technologies was allowed to move ahead with bankruptcy plans that include shedding its U.S. properties.
The predominantly Latino residents who are in harm’s way have looked to the state agency to make right what Exide left behind.
The California agency responsible for that cleanup has been slow to act, gone over budget and overlooked contaminated properties like parks and child care centers in the area. A state auditor’s report released in October said it will likely cost California an additional $390 million to clean up the sites in addition to the $260 million already spent on the smelting plant, which Exide took over in 2000.
Over 7,800 properties in LA County were identified by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) as being contaminated in 2014.
The state auditor found the agency will likely miss its June 2021 target deadline to clean 3,200 sites that were flagged as highly contaminated.
During the virtual hearing of the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee hearing, elected officials asked how this project could have stalled so many times after being flagged as being such a high priority.
DTSC director Meredith Williams said the agency is on pace to meet 90% of its cleanup deadline, but she named several roadblocks that are gumming up the process.
For example, day care facilities that have not been cleaned up either refused to comply with the agency or are no longer in business, Williams testified.
“Covid has made residents reluctant to participate in the cleanup process,” said Williams, adding the agency increased outreach efforts to continue the cleanup, but how far that goes will depend on the agency’s budget.
Other reasons for the slow progress are heat, smoke from nearby wildfires and parking in residential neighborhoods that keep crews from doing their work.
“Sometimes we have to resort to hand-excavation,” Williams testified, as large machinery cannot make it through the residential neighborhoods. “The logistics are very complex. There are even neighborhoods where we can’t add additional crews because the impact to parking in the neighborhood would be just completely unmanageable.”
Management of the project has been poor all around, according to the state auditor’s report.
The report said the agency did a poor job on cost estimation and securing contracts with work crews. Williams said the agency will not be hiring an additional contractor for the cleanup job, meaning the project is expected to move at its same rate.
As part of its bankruptcy proceeding, Exide left the state $2.5 million for cleanup costs. But that’s far short of what’s needed, Williams said. The agency has $26 million, but it will likely cost $100 million to continue the cleanup efforts.
State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who represents part of the contaminated area, asked why it took a state audit to point out that the agency was down to one contractor for the cleanup operation instead of several.
“These issues with this department have been going on for decades. I know today we’re trying to slice out a piece on how they handled the Exide cleanup and all the issues there. But this is their expertise. They should have been handling this for decades,” said Durazo. “It’s mind-boggling. There are 100,000 people in this community of color that have been devasted with health issues with their children.”
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, who also represents parts of LA County that are contaminated, said somebody at DTSC “should have been screaming at the top of their lungs” when 31 properties were overlooked for cleanup.
If there were legal obstacles in place keeping the agency from meeting its deadline then they should have come to lawmakers for some type of solution, he said.
“But to have it found out through an audit — we’re in a professional setting so I won’t say what I want to say — but it’s disheartening that it took an audit to find out that there were 31 properties not cleaned,” said Santiago.
He added: “People’s lives are at stake. People may have died, have died and could die.”
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