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Exide to remove lead-polluted soil from 2 homes north of its Vernon plant

On Monday, excavation crews paid for by Exide Technologies began digging up polluted soil around homes near the lead-battery recycling facility.

The two homes are north of the facility near the border of Boyle Heights and East LA.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the work, didn’t disclose the addresses, citing the privacy of the residents. But orange plastic traffic cones, trucks, and heavy construction equipment were visible Monday around the intersection of Olympic and La Puerta Street.

A man named Sal Chavez came out on the porch of a house where crews were trying to squeeze large trucks into a driveway. Chavez says he has lived at his house in Boyle Heights for 47 years. 

Pollution surrounds his neighborhood, he said. "We talk about it, the neighbors, you know, but sometimes we can’t do anything about it because nobody listened to us," Chavez said. About the cleanup mandated by the DTSC at his residence, he said, "This is a nice program."

Chavez added that some of his neighbors were interested in getting the cleanup he's getting. In addition to the soil removal, DTSC officials say remediation crews will clean the inside of Chavez's house too. 

Exide and its predecessors have recycled lead batteries at 2700 Indiana Avenue in Vernon for decades. In recent years, state and federal regulators have targeted the company for its emissions, containing toxic lead and arsenic that sometimes exceeds standards.

Last spring, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found arsenic pollution from the facility increased the cancer risk for more than 100-thousand people in the area. And soil testing at areas north and south of the company found higher than expected levels of lead in the spring.

During that testing, conducted in November of last year, samples from two homes found lead in soil at 400 parts per million, the level at which the federal government triggers remedial action. As a result, the DTSC has ordered Exide to remove the top 18 inches of soil from the private properties, and replace it with clean fill soil. Separately, the company must continue testing at 37 more homes and two schools near the facility.

The company and regulators are still negotiating over how to conduct that next stage of cleanup and testing. At issue is what the company must do at homes where soil samples revealed lead in amounts less than 400 parts per million, but above 80 parts per million, which is a level that California regulators consider protective of human health. 

Environmental activists, some from East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, gathered at a school near the cleanup sites to voice concerns about the slow pace of investigation and remediation.

"Families around here now have been told that the children are not to play in the dirt, pregnant women should not touch the dirt, if you have fruit or vegetables they should not touch the dirt," said Monsignor John Moretta, who leads Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights. "And we've been living like that for over a year." 

They also criticized the completeness of the cleanup.

"You know we really have no way of knowing, until that additional sampling is done, whether these are the two worst" polluted homes, said the Natural Resources Defense Council's Ramiya Sivasubramaniam, who pointed out that discrete sampling was conducted at a fraction of the homes. "Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t."

The DTSC's Rizgar Ghazi stressed that investigatory work is not complete. Ghazi said that further exploratory testing begins Tuesday and will continue for about 60 days, covering about 2 square miles north and south of Exide's Vernon plant. 

It'll take that long, Ghazi says, because "Physically - literally we have to go knock door to door to get permission from the property owners," he said. "Some property owners are happy to do that. Some property owners won’t even answer the door."

Exide has said that no tests directly and exclusively link its operations to the lead pollution. In a written statement, the company said that it would comply with all orders and mandates.  

Exide’s dispute with air regulators continues. Last week, the South Coast AQMD added more allegations of pollution violations to a $40 million lawsuit against Exide in Los Angeles Superior Court. And last month, a hearing board for the air district ordered the company to take additional pollution control measures before it could reopen.

Spokesmen for the company were unable to comment on the lawsuit. However, in a recent written statement, Thomas Strang, a vice president of environment health & safety for the company, stressed that “Exide is committed to meeting the new air quality standards.” 

This story has been updated.