Elevated levels of lead have been found in the soil of homes and a preschool near a battery recycling plant in Vernon, prompting officials to issue health warnings and order more testing in adjacent neighborhoods.
State toxic waste regulators said the initial results from 39 homes as well as two schools concerned them enough that they have directed Exide Technologies to create a plan to protect children and pregnant women living in affected homes, as well as perform the additional testing.
This marks the first time state officials have found widespread ground contamination in residential areas near Exide, which is one of only two lead acid battery smelters west of the Rocky Mountains. The plant, opened in the 1920s, recycles as many as 25,000 batteries a day.
Exide officials said they are reviewing the findings.
“Exide is studying the department’s response and will work cooperatively to conduct the requested additional sampling and the interim cleanup measures,” the company said in a statement. “The health and safety of the community, as well as its workforce, are important to Exide, and the company is committed to investing in the Vernon facility to further reduce emissions and protect public health.”
The company has been the focus of intense attention from elected leaders, residents and officials since the South Coast Air Quality Management District found last year that arsenic emissions from the plant posed an elevated cancer risk to 110,000 people living nearby.
The soil testing occurred this year in Boyle Heights and Maywood. Testing did not show elevated levels of arsenic in any of the yards. But the soil of every home tested had amounts of lead that exceeded 80 parts per million, the level at which California recommends further health-related evaluations.
One home in Boyle Heights had samples above 580 parts per million. The preschool, Salazar Park Head Start, which is farther north from Exide, had a sample at 95 parts per million.
Homes in Boyle Heights had an average level of about 222 parts per million of lead at a soil depth of 3 to 6 inches. In Maywood, the average was about 160 parts per million.
State officials stressed that those levels do not pose an acute risk for adults living there, or even an indication that long-term exposure will be harmful.
But the pollution is a “concern” for children and pregnant woman, and officials said they were calling residents Monday to tell them to stay away from soil, wash their hands after touching it and grow vegetables only in raised beds.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin. Children are more vulnerable than adults and can suffer learning disabilities even with limited exposure.
“This is not an emergency situation, but we are still concerned and demanding that Exide take actions to protect public health,” said Brian Johnson, deputy director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. “The first priority is those homes with kids and pregnant women.”
Msgr. John Moretta, the priest at Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, said he feared this was “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“Now the question is: How are they going to clean up that mess?” he said. “Are people just supposed to not let their children go out and play?”
The state has given the company two weeks to come up with a plan for additional testing and solutions to protect people living with elevated lead in their soil. Officials also plan to begin offering free blood tests for lead to anyone who wants them later this spring.
Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) said the testing shows Exide “operations pose a threat to the health and well-being” of workers, residents and schoolchildren. “This situation has already gone on much too long.”
The plant, which was taken over by Exide in 2000, has been cited several times in recent years, often for exceeding permissible levels of lead.
The state’s emergency order comes as the AQMD is pursuing its own petition calling for a halt to lead smelting operations at Exide “until its air pollution control systems are improved and deemed adequate” to control toxic emissions.
A hearing board for the air district has been taking testimony on that petition.
Exide officials have argued the plant should be allowed to stay open and that emissions have plummeted in recent months.
Last spring, the state toxic substances department moved to shut it down temporarily, citing health concerns. But Exide appealed, and a judge allowed the plant to resume operations.
The state entered into an agreement with the company in which Exide will spend $7.7 million for a new storm water system and improvements to reduce arsenic emissions.
The company also agreed to perform the soil and dust sampling at the homes for arsenic and lead.
The plant, which has been operating on a temporary permit for decades, is seeking a final permit from the state.
A community meeting on the lead testing result is scheduled for March 19 at Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights.