State to begin using children's blood tests to focus cleanup of Vernon battery recycling plant

Under intense criticism from California lawmakers, the state will begin using blood test results from children to help focus its massive cleanup of lead-contaminated homes in southeast Los Angeles County, state officials said Wednesday.

Environmental regulators have received a state Department of Public Health analysis of blood lead levels of children living near the closed Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon and will use it "to further refine and target our testing and cleanup," Barbara Lee, director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, told an Assembly subcommittee.

The Times reported Saturday that the state has data showing elevated levels of lead in the blood of children near the plant but has not used the information to help direct its cleanup, which encompasses a zone of 10,000 homes in half a dozen communities.

FULL COVERAGE: Read more from The Times on Exide>>

State legislators, community groups and local officials reacted strongly to the news.

"We are talking about simple coordination among state departments to protect our most precious resource, our children, and it shouldn't take media inquiries to break through the bureaucratic malaise," said Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights. If blood testing data "will help us prioritize cleanup efforts, that information should have been released sooner."

The Times reported that blood test results for children have been used elsewhere to direct responses to lead contamination, including in Flint, Mich. The failure to use blood testing data in California since the Exide cleanup began 19 months ago is consistent with long-standing complaints from community groups that the state has shown a lack of urgency in addressing the contamination.

Public health experts say California regulators directing which neighborhoods have priority in cleanup should use blood testing data in addition to factors such as soil sampling, wind patterns and proximity to the facility.

Officials overseeing the Exide cleanup had tried unsuccessfully for more than two years to obtain blood lead screening data from state and county health agencies, which keep the records. The toxic substances department formally requested census tract-level data in September.

The department said it is reviewing the health department's analysis and would make the findings public once its examination is complete.

Lead, which spewed from the plant for decades, is a powerful poison. The toxic metal is most dangerous to young children, putting them at risk of lifelong developmental and behavioral problems.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) said he was encouraged by the move to use blood testing data, "but I still have concerns and questions regarding how long it took to share the information and why there were barriers in the first place."

"We're still investigating to ensure that this never happens again, either in my community or any other community, when we're facing a health crisis like this," Santiago said.

Exide agreed to close the plant a year ago under a deal with federal prosecutors, which followed a criminal investigation and community outrage toward state regulators for allowing the facility to operate for decades without a full permit.

The Times requested the blood lead analysis, which the state health department had pledged to make public once it was complete, but was not provided a copy.

Lee, the Department of Toxic Substances Control director, told lawmakers Wednesday the health department analysis has taken time because "it's not simply a matter of pushing a button on a computer." To visualize the blood lead data in a useful way, health officials had to map more than 12,000 data points, she said.

The Times previously obtained and analyzed blood test records from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and found that 547 people under age 21 living in census tracts in the Exide cleanup area had elevated levels of lead in their blood from 2010 to 2014.

Gladys Limón, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, said the state's delay is part of a regulatory failure "to provide the necessary attention and resources to this public health crisis and continues to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of residents of color" in the overwhelmingly Latino neighborhoods near the plant.

Limón called on lawmakers to launch "independent investigations and hearings like those undertaken regarding the Flint lead health crisis. The impacted communities deserve answers, and those responsible should be held accountable."

TIMELINE: A history of Exide Technologies>>

Also Wednesday, Lee announced that Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has dropped its opposition to conducting an environmental review of the cleanup. The decision to move forward with legislation allocating $176.6 million in cleanup funds came in response to objections in recent weeks from community groups, environmentalists and state lawmakers over Brown's proposal to exempt the project from the California Environmental Quality Act.

That funding would pay for soil testing of 10,000 homes in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon and will clean an estimated 2,500 of the worst-polluted properties over about two years, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The moves by the Brown administration are "a sign that they're starting to be responsive to what our communities are asking for," said Mark Lopez, who directs the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "Every step of the way this cleanup has only moved forward through community pressure."

Toxics regulators say about 200 homes of more than 1,000 tested to date have been cleaned.

tony.barboza@latimes.com | Twitter: @tonybarboza

ben.poston@latimes.com | Twitter: @bposton

ALSO

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 31, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kids' blood tests to shape Exide cleanup - Lawmakers' intense criticism prompts state to begin using the results of lead testing to focus effort." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
73°