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Many homes around Quemetco not tested for lead

Quemetco in the City of Industry recycles 600 tons of lead from batteries each day. The battery recycler is pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Quemetco recycles 600 tons of lead from batteries each day.

The state has finished collecting soil samples from homes in a quarter-mile radius around the Quemetco lead battery recycling plant in the City of Industry, but it only got permission to collect dirt from less than half of the area's residential properties, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

That has local activists worried that the lab analysis of the samples will paint an incomplete picture of the extent of lead and/or arsenic contamination in their neighborhoods. 

The tests will determine if Toxic Substances Control will require Quemetco to expand the soil testing area.

The toxics agency is in charge of getting permission for soil sampling. According to Quemetco there are 368 residences in the target area but only 154 property owners gave the go ahead. About 15 refused, according to a community update the agency released earlier this month.

A Quemetco spokesman said the rest of the owners did not respond to calls, letters and door knocks from state representatives.

According to Toxic Substances Control, the access agreements were in English, Spanish and Mandarin and were mailed to every property. Then staff and contractors went door to door to collect the forms. They canvassed at different times, including evenings and weekends, and made at least three attempts at each home, the agency wrote in response to questions.

The Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights offered volunteers to knock on doors and help get access agreements from residents who might have been fearful of government workers or who weren't home when the official canvassers came by.

Toxic Substances Control turned down the Coalition's offer, telling it in an email that "the project team has determined that they have a significant number of samples in the area, and will be moving to work on the industrial sites (for sampling)."

For activists that means there will be a gap in the test results.

"That’s not a full scope of what’s in the quarter-mile radius," said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez, a member of the CleanAir Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights. "They’re going to say that’s enough but that’s not going to be good enough."

The toxics agency said that by the time the neighborhood group offered to help, the canvassers had already finished trying to reach each property owner.

Reaching property owners was also a challenge around the old Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, where the state is taking samples from thousands of homes. Eventually state regulators enlisted the aid of community organizers, who mobilized hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors and explain, often in Spanish, the process and why the sampling was important.

Toxic Substances Control is now seeking access agreements from commercial and industrial properties in the quarter-mile radius around Quemetco. So far 10 out of 27 have given permission for sampling, according to agency spokesman Sandy Nax.

The state will wrap up its sampling in about two weeks, he said. Overmyer-Velazquez worries that if more commercial firms don't grant access, the test results will again not accurately portray the extent of toxic contamination on the industrial sites. 

The toxics agency expects to issue a report on the results of its residential and commercial soil tests in December, along with its decision on whether Quemetco needs to sample soil from a wider area. 

The state decided to check for contamination around Quemetco partly because of what happened with Exide, and partly because Quemetco is seeking permission to renew its hazardous waste permit and increase the number of batteries it recycles.

Quemetco is the last lead battery recycler this side of the Mississippi. The state agency shut down Exide last year and is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the contamination that facility left behind.