In a letter to State Legislators, Gov. Jerry Brown today proposed spending $176.6 million to expedite and expand the testing and cleanup of homes, schools and parks near the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
The letter, sent to the chairs of the Senate and Assembly budget and appropriations committees, says funds will be in the form of a loan from the General Fund, and that California will “vigorously pursue Exide and other potential responsible parties to recover the costs of this cleanup.”
“This Exide battery recycling facility has been a problem for a very long time,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re opening a new chapter that will help protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”
The $176.6 million will ensure the Department of Toxic Substances Control is able to test properties, homes, schools, daycare centers and parks within the targeted 1.7-mile radius of the now shuttered battery-recycling plant in Ve
rnon, and remove soil from properties with the highest levels of lead-contaminated soiled, according to the governor’s letter.
The announcement comes following months of growing frustration and heavy criticism by residents, environmental activists and state and local elected officials over the governor’s long silence on Exide, particularly in the wake of his rapid response to the SoCal Gas Co. gas leak in more affluent Porter Ranch, and emergency declaration allowing the state to shepherd state funding and resources to deal with the catastrophe. For years, despite repeated violations of polluting air emissions and handling of hazardous waste, the state had allowed Exide to operate on a temporary permit, allowing the company to continue to decades spew toxic levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological diseases in the mostly working-class communities of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Commerce, Bell, Huntington Park, and East Los Angeles.
Senate Leader Kevin de Leon today applauded the governor for recognizing the “urgent need” for emergency action. Ongoing talks with the governor’s office led to this day, the senator said. “Urgency legislation” to appropriate the funding will be introduced within the next week or so, De Leon told reporters.
“Our communities have been fighting Exide for decades, and with today’s announcement from Governor Brown, it is clear he has heard our calls for swift and comprehensive cleanup,” said Mark Lopez with East Yards for Environmental Justice.
Lopez said the funding is not enough to complete the entire cleanup, but is the “next step in the long road to justice on this issue.”
He said the governor’s announcement is a clear message the cleanup will now be a priority for the state, after years of failing to protect the community from Exide.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee, responded to criticism of the governor Tuesday night at a meeting of the Independent Exide Community Advisory Committee.
“He spent hours talking about Exide, working on what he wants to propose,” she said, before alluding to an impending announcement.
Today she told reporters the proposal was a “big milestone” for the state and an indication of how committed the governor is to the cleanup.
Brown’s announcement came one day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to send a letter to Brown and legislative leaders, calling for them to allocate more funding for the cleanup effort, saying the $8.5 million originally proposed by the governor was inadequate.
“The state’s numbers indicate that the cleanup could cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who said publicly in the past the governor had not responded to her efforts to get him to allocate more state resources to the cleanup.
In October, the board approved $2 million in funding to help speed the cleanup of contaminated soil around the now-closed Exide plant, with Solis saying the state was dragging its feet
Exide agreed in March to close its lead-acid battery recycling plant and pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods.
Of that amount, $26 million will be combined with $11 million currently in trust to safely close the plant, according to DTSC. As of August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid in by March 2020, according to state officials.
As many as 1,000 homes may be found to have toxicity concentrated enough to qualify as hazardous waste, and the state has estimated that 5,000-10,000 homes may ultimately require some cleanup.
The plant, which produced a host of hazardous wastes, including lead, arsenic and benzene, operated for 33 years without a permanent permit. Efforts to upgrade the equipment and safety procedures repeatedly failed to meet environmental standards.
Though gaseous plant emissions are no longer an issue, lead contamination in the soil, which can cause developmental delays and cognitive impairments, remains a concern.
A public health spokesman has also cited the increased risk of cancer linked to other chemicals once emitted by the plant.
Boyle Heights and Maywood have the highest levels of residential contamination, but the area of exposure stretches to encompass roughly two million people, according to Angelo Bellomo, director of the county’s Environmental Health Division.