The task of removing lead-contaminated soil from thousands of homes near a closed Vernon battery recycling plant would be the largest cleanup of its kind in California and rank among the biggest conducted nationwide, say environmental officials and experts in toxic remediation.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control announced last week that soil testing shows decades of air pollution from the Exide Technologies facility deposited toxic dust across a wider area of southeast L.A. County than previously estimated, possibly fouling as many as 10,000 homes.
"It is safe to say that no lead cleanup of neighborhoods in California involving DTSC has approached the number of potential properties that could be involved in this case," department spokesman Sandy Nax wrote in an email.
Community groups that rallied for the plant's closure are now urging state officials to dedicate additional funds quickly to expand soil testing and clean more homes. Over the last year, contaminated soil has been removed and replaced at 146 of the homes closest to the facility in Maywood and Boyle Heights, with Exide footing the bill.
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"Every day, week or month that goes by, our children are being exposed to the poison that is lead," said Mark Lopez, who lives a few miles from the Exide plant in East Los Angeles and heads the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "We hope the next battle is not having to fight DTSC for the cleanup."
Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that has no safe level of exposure. It can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and diminished IQs in children. Because of its use throughout the years in gasoline, paint and batteries, the metal is one of the most common contaminants at cleanup sites across the nation.
Exide issued a statement Monday standing by the findings of a report it filed last week with state regulators "that establish the limits of lead impacts from the Vernon facility."
The Georgia-based company has said its contributions to lead in the soil are small relative to other sources, such as lead-based paint in older homes, leaded gasoline phased out decades ago and other businesses in the heavily industrial city of Vernon. The report said contamination from the plant was limited to nearby industrial zones and do not extend into residential areas.
The preliminary results released by the state last week were based on soil samples from 146 additional homes spread over a two-square mile area stretching out from the plant and into Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park and East Los Angeles. The sampling data were used to predict where similarly elevated levels of lead should be expected.
Officials with the toxic substances department have not determined how many of potentially thousands of properties will ultimately require soil cleanup, but acknowledged last week that it would be considerably more extensive and costly than anticipated.
In a deal reached in March with the U.S. attorney's office, Exide agreed to close and demolish the 15-acre facility to avoid criminal charges stemming from years of environmental law violations. As part of the settlement, the company is required to pay $50 million for a state-supervised pollution cleanup, including $9 million to remove lead contamination from homes.
Now, the cleanup cost could balloon to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
State and federal officials say the agreement with Exide requires the company to pay the full cost of cleanup, even if it exceeds $50 million. But the toxic substances department said last week it was looking for funds to pay for the work while the agency seeks additional money from Exide and other responsible parties.
Lead emissions from smelters, mines and battery processing facilities have resulted in extensive cleanups before, many of them through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program to deal with the nation's most hazardous sites.
Many of those were the result of pollution from secondary lead smelters, which like Exide melted down used car batteries into raw materials for new ones.
One of the largest is an EPA cleanup in Omaha, Neb., that has removed soil from the yards of more than 12,000 homes contaminated by an old smelter's lead emissions. The cleanup has been going on for more than a decade, at a cost of more than $300 million.
A moderate-sized cleanup is a few hundred homes, said Ian H. von Lindern, who worked for decades as a consultant on environmental cleanups, including the Bunker Hill Superfund Site in northern Idaho, where more than 6,000 properties were cleaned of lead-tainted soil.
"Ten thousand would be large," he said.
Determining the extent of the contamination from a facility like Exide will be challenging and expensive, environmental cleanup experts said.
Removing the lead could take many years — but would significantly reduce health risks to young children. Those age 6 and under are most vulnerable to lead poisoning because they often play outside and ingest soil and dust.
The county health department has tested the blood of hundreds of people who live near Exide as part of a free screening program funded by the company. The tests have not revealed any lead poisoning requiring medical intervention, but the program has faced criticism for screening few young children
Cleaning up a yard takes about a week and costs about $45,000, the toxic substances department said. Contractors dig up and haul away contaminated topsoil and replace it with new dirt.
Department officials said last week they are studying other major cleanups and believe the lead could be removed from soil in L.A. County at a lower cost.
For more environment news, follow me @tonybarboza
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