State agency forfeited cleanup funds for lead-contaminated parkways in Los Angeles County
As congressional representatives urge federal officials to assist California’s struggling, $750-million effort to remove brain-damaging lead from neighborhoods surrounding the shuttered Exide battery recycling plant, The Times has learned that the agency in charge of the project has forfeited millions of dollars earmarked for the cleanup of heavily contaminated parkways.
Although officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control have long insisted they lacked the funding to clean the publicly owned strips of turf between streets and sidewalks, state lawmakers had set aside $6.5 million for the testing and cleaning of parkways, according to the state finance department. However, more than half of that money reverted back to the general fund after the agency missed a spending deadline, the office said.
News of the funding loss has angered Assembly members who worked to obtain funding for the six-year effort. It has also provoked outrage among residents in the affected neighborhoods of southeast Los Angeles County.
“Money hasn’t been a problem for the cleanup,” said mark! Lopez, a community organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “It’s been mismanagement that’s been the primary issue. There’s been a culture of mismanagement.”
A recent investigation by The Times found that numerous homes targeted for cleanup were left with lead concentrations in excess of state health standards. Some residents and officials say the high concentrations raise serious questions about the department’s oversight of the project — as well as its commitment to making the predominantly Latino, historically underserved neighborhoods safe from the potent neurotoxin.
Numerous homes that underwent remediation have been left with lead concentrations in excess of state health standards, according to USC researchers.
Recently, those concerns prompted Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla of California to call for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step in.
“We believe the severity of the crisis, the failure of past remediation efforts to create healthy communities, and the risk to public health requires assistance from the EPA and the resources available under the Superfund program,” the lawmakers wrote.
The environmental cleanup — the largest and most costly in California history — set out to excavate polluted soil from the yards of homes, schools and parks within 1.7 miles of the Exide facility.
However, the Department of Toxic Substances Control had no plan to remove lead-laced soil from neighborhood parkways, which sit directly in front of most of the properties.
Of the $6.5 million that lawmakers appropriated in 2018 for the testing and cleaning of parkways, the department used $2.9 million to pay for the collection and testing of more than 8,100 soil samples, spokesperson Allison Wescott said.
The analysis found that 76% of the samples contained lead concentrations in excess of the state health threshold. The Department of Toxic Substances Control estimated that it would cost $70 million to clean parkways within the remediation zone, according to Wescott.
Following the testing, remaining funds were supposed to be spent cleaning up the parkways with the greatest lead levels and highest risk of exposure, according to the department’s website. But the agency never devised a plan for cleaning parkways and failed to spend any of the remaining $3.6 million within the two-year period. Instead, those funds were returned to the state’s general fund and went toward the statewide COVID-19 response after June 2020, state officials said.
Since then, $332 million has been allocated to clean up properties in the area, “more than restoring this funding,” Wescott said. None of it has funded the removal of toxins from the parkways, however.
“DTSC is seeking federal funding by requesting the cleanup be added to the Superfund list, which could be used to address parkways,” she said.
However, environmental advocates and residents worry that if a federal agency oversees aspects of the cleanup, it could opt to remove soil with lead contamination above the federal standard, which is five times higher than California’s limit.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control previously contended that it had not planned to clean the parkways in part “because of the understanding that residents generally spend little time in those spaces.”
The department, however, did acknowledge the presence of “high levels of lead” and the fact that “merely passing through the parkway before entering the house could reintroduce soil-bound lead into a home.”
The agency conducted its own survey and found that more than 30% of residents with children reported that the kids played in or otherwise made contact with a parkway at least once a week, and nearly 10% said the children did so every day.
On Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights, a 1,700-feet stretch between Camulos Street and Grand Vista Avenue, a number of parkways border Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center and Wyvernwood Garden Apartments. State-ordered testing found 12 soil samples from parkways in that stretch with lead levels above 1,000 parts per million. The highest, 2,460 parts per million, was collected from a grassy strip of land mere feet from bleachers and a baseball diamond.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who pushed for parkways to be cleaned along with houses, said she worried that the state’s cleanup approach may have allowed for contamination to spread from parkways to residential yards — or even inside houses.
Solis, along with L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, has introduced a resolution calling on the state to identify funding to clean the parkways and said dirty ones should be cordoned off in the meantime.
“I’ve never thought it made sense not to clean the parkways,” Hahn said in a statement. “I always heard it was a funding issue, but now we learned that they had the money but failed to use it in a timely manner. This is a shame, because what’s at stake here is the health of children and entire families in these neighborhoods.”
Her comments were echoed by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), who advocated for state funding to test and clean parkways near the Exide plant.
“Marginalized, low-income, immigrant, non-English-speaking communities impacted by the largest environmental disaster in the history of California deserve the same oversight as wealthier communities who experience environmental harms,” Carrillo said. “DTSC will have to respond during the Assembly Budget hearing on April 19.”
Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), another proponent of the parkway funding, expressed his frustration with the bygone funding.
“We fought and allocated $6.5 million to test and clean up parkways,” Santiago said in a statement. “Anything less is unacceptable.”
At a community meeting last week at USC’s health sciences campus in Boyle Heights, residents reviewed new research showing that properties that had been cleaned by the state still contained elevated levels of lead. Many voiced concerns about the project, including the decision to omit parkways from the lead cleanup.
Jose Gonzalez, a 67-year-old resident of Boyle Heights, called for a federal agency, such as the EPA or Army Corps of Engineers, to take over the lead remediation.
Gonzalez worked as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier for about 40 years, trekking through neighborhood parkways.
“When you park your car, where is the first place that your wife and children step?” Gonzalez said. “They step on this stuff, they walk inside, they track it on the carpet — instant contamination.”
During the meeting, Diego Janacua bounced his 9-month-old daughter over his shoulder as he and his wife, Yvette Aragon-Janacua, listened intently to talk of the extent of lead contamination in the area.
The couple purchased a duplex in unincorporated East Los Angeles in March 2022, unaware of the lead pollution and state cleanup. Shortly after they put money in escrow to purchase the home, their tenant asked if they knew about the industrial contamination.
The couple, who moved from South Pasadena, said they were stunned.
“No one told us about this,” Aragon-Janacua said. “There was no disclosure that you were buying in a contaminated, hazardous-waste location. I was pregnant with our firstborn, and I’m horrified thinking she may have been exposed to this. Where was the transparency? Where was the disclaimer?”
“We had buyer’s regret instantly,” Janacua added.
The couple said they contacted the Department of Toxic Substances Control last summer to request that their home’s soil be tested.
The department said the home is scheduled to be sampled next month.
“We thought we were doing this great thing, and it’s turned into a nightmare,” Aragon-Janacua said. “Now we’re considering moving out, because I’m not going to expose our child to this. Honestly, it’s giving me major anxiety.”
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