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Finally, some action on Exide from Jerry Brown

Finally, some action on Exide from Jerry Brown
Community members and activists gather in the backyard of a home east of downtown Los Angeles to mark the closure of the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant on Mar. 12, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown listened. After residents, local officials and activists criticized his administration's excruciatingly slow pace in cleaning up lead-tainted homes near the shuttered Exide plant, the governor has stepped up with a proposal to spend $176.6 million to test and decontaminate affected properties within a year.

Brown's plan, announced Wednesday, calls on legislators to approve an immediate loan from the state's general fund to cover the projected cost of the work. Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon said their chambers would introduce emergency legislation next week. The proposed funding is more than twice the $70 million that Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and community groups requested last month. They were hoping for enough money to test all 10,000 properties in the impacted areas for lead contamination and to begin cleaning the most tainted properties.

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For the Record

Exide: A Feb. 18 editorial about Gov. Brown's proposed response to the defunct Exide battery recycling plant said the state would test and decontaminate affected properties within a year. The cleanup is expected to take two years.

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But with $176.6 million, state Department of Toxic Substances Control officials say they could hire enough crews to test every house and clean up 2,500 homes, schools, day care centers and parks within 1.7 miles of the former battery recycling plant. The hope is that the money will cover most, if not all, the properties found to be contaminated. The funding is considered a loan because the state intends to try to recoup the expense from Exide later.

The governor's urgency and the DTSC's new aggressive cleanup schedule is welcome news. Residents in Boyle Heights, Maywood and other communities near the plant have been living in fear since state officials warned last year that their yards and homes might be contaminated with levels of lead high enough to cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children and miscarriages in pregnant women. People were told to keep their children from playing in the dirt and to avoid eating fruits or vegetables that touched the soil.

Yet, despite the urgency of the warnings, state officials moved glacially to assess and remove the risk. As of last month, the state had cleaned up only 191 properties, which is a tiny fraction of those affected. The slow pace was frustrating to residents and local elected officials in the working class communities near Exide who watched Brown and his administration's swift reaction to the natural gas leak near Porter Ranch, an affluent suburban neighborhood. It was especially galling because the state bears some responsibility for Exide's contamination — it allowed the plant to operate on a temporary permit and outdated pollution controls for 30 years, despite repeated air-quality and hazardous-waste violations.

DTSC officials downplayed comparisons to Porter Ranch, noting that Exide is one of the largest cleanups of its kind in the nation and insisting that it took time to develop a realistic price tag. The total cost per property is expected to be roughly $45,000.

Brown's proposal would also exempt the cleanup from the California Environmental Quality Act, which means DTSC officials would not have to complete a lengthy environmental impact report before removing lead-laced soil from all homes. However, state officials said they would — and they should — work with the community to reduce potential harms from the cleanup, including noise and exhaust from trucks and heavy construction equipment.

The governor's proposal also includes funding to improve community outreach on Exide-related health concerns, and it calls for the state to hire local workers and contract with local businesses for the cleanup. This is a good start to make amends for decades of neglect. Brown and lawmakers have said Exide is a priority and now they are beginning to prove it.

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