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Editorial: Where’s the urgency in cleaning up the Exide battery plant mess?

Where’s the urgency in cleaning up the Exide battery plant mess?

A man waters his new lawn in August after the California Department of Toxic Substances Control replaced the soil. Lead contamination had been found on his Boyle Heights property.

(Los Angeles Times)

State environmental regulators knew for decades that the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon was spewing deadly substances into its surroundings, but revelations about the extent of the damage have continued even after the company agreed to shutter the plant. Six months ago, state officials discovered dangerously high levels of toxic lead dust in more homes farther from the site. Two months ago, officials projected that as many as 10,000 homes could be contaminated, putting children in the area at risk of lead poisoning that can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Everyone agrees this is an urgent problem that needs immediate action, but the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has yet to shift into high gear. One Boyle Heights resident was told her yard had hazardous-waste levels of lead, yet there has been no cleanup. A CBS2 / KCAL9 reporter rented a scanning device that can detect metals in soil and tested the home next door. He found lead at 5,000 parts per million in the backyard dirt where a toddler played — more than 60 times higher than the 80 ppm level that would trigger a cleanup. State officials confirmed the results. The boy’s father told CBS that he had no idea his neighborhood was tainted with a neurotoxin or that his son was at risk just by playing in the yard.

[Hilda] Solis and other elected officials should also demand an independent investigation into how multiple state and federal agencies failed to properly regulate a major polluter.

Frustrated by the slow pace, Supervisor Hilda Solis wants Los Angeles County to put up $2 million to fund a public health outreach campaign to warn residents about possible contamination, so parents could protect their children from exposure. She also wants county staff to begin testing homes and identifying high-priority cleanups immediately instead of waiting for state regulators to get around to it. Solis has a point. The DTSC is hoping to release its sampling plan this week for public comment, with the goal (but no guarantee) of beginning testing and cleaning up properties in November. That’s seven months after residents were told their homes were contaminated. Where’s the urgency?

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The state is facing a massive undertaking. Some 10,000 properties must be tested and hundreds, maybe thousands, will need to be cleaned inside and out at an estimated cost of $50,000 apiece. Taxpayers are expected to front much of the money — possibly several hundred million dollars — to expedite the work while state lawyers try to recoup the cleanup costs from Exide.

This fiasco could have been avoided if regulators had simply enforced state environmental laws. The DTSC allowed Exide to operate for 30 years with a temporary permit and outdated pollution controls, despite repeated air-quality and hazardous-waste violations. In March, Exide agreed to shut down its troubled plant rather than face federal prosecution for environmental crimes.

Solis is right to push for aggressive outreach to parents and the fastest possible testing of the homes and cleanup of contaminated properties. The longer toxic residue remains in unsuspecting residents’ homes and yards, the greater the number of children who could suffer a lifetime of diminished capacity from the lead their bodies absorb. The costs to society mount as the clock ticks.

But it’s not enough just to accelerate the cleanups. Solis and other elected officials should also demand an independent investigation into how multiple state and federal agencies failed to properly regulate a major polluter. No agency has explained how the company was allowed to operate for so long with so many violations that endangered so many people. Although the DTSC’s new director has apologized for her agency’s handling of Exide and pledged to be protective of community health going forward, the promise of one political appointee overseeing one department isn’t enough to ensure that the institutional problems will be fixed.

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At the moment, state officials are rightly focused on getting a thorough cleanup of the Exide plant and the surrounding communities underway. Some are wary that a backward-looking investigation will only be a distraction for regulators trying to repair the damage. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to move forward without also fixing the failures that put the residents of those homes at risk. Without an outside, independent investigation uncovering those failures, California is doomed to repeat the costly mistakes it made on Exide.

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