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Exide update: Lead-based pollution may have reached thousands of homes (Updated)

Newly disclosed results from soil samples around the now-shuttered Exide lead-battery recycling plant suggest a larger area of potential contamination than previously thought. 

Thousands of people may live on contaminated properties as much as a mile and three-quarters away from the Vernon facility. “We have preliminarily estimated the number of residential properties potentially affected could be five to six thousand, or as high as nine to 10 thousand,” said director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control Barbara Lee. “It is certainly a large extent of impact.”

Last year, DTSC made Exide responsible for cleaning hundreds of homes in a smaller area. Since then, technicians supervised by the agency took thousands of samples further from the smelter, in an effort to determine the extent of the pollution. 

The latest results found lead at more distant properties at levels similar to homes closer to the plant. Tests at some locations found lead at hundreds of parts per million higher than the state's benchmark of 80 ppm, which triggers further testing into health risk. A small fraction of results are higher than 1,000 parts per million, a level at which state and federal authorities mandate additional inquiries and, in some cases, immediate action.

Lee said the DTSC is working on a cleanup strategy for the expanded area. But she emphasized that action would not be immediate. That's because no tests have found levels of lead above 1,200 parts per million at homes where children or elderly adults lived -- a criteria used by the federal government to decide when to take emergency action.

Still, Lee said, “we are moving to take action as quickly as we can."

Community activists want state regulators to move even faster.

“It is appalling,” said Consumer Watchdog’s Liza Tucker. “The DTSC needs to own up to the fact that we have an extensive problem. The buck stops with them.”

Whether in air or soil, lead pollution is harmful to human health, particularly the health of children and pregnant women. It can lead to learning disabilities and birth defects.

Gladys Limon, a lawyer with the Communities for a Better Environment, said she saw the results at a meeting Thursday of a community advisory group on Exide convened by the DTSC.  

“Exide’s contamination is widespread, and its magnitude has far-reaching consequences, both for residents’ health and safety, and the public coffers,” wrote Limon in an email following the meeting. “I think we are looking at one of the largest public health disasters in the state’s history.”

How big remains a very open question.

Exide settled criminal allegations with the U.S. Department of Justice in March, and settled environmental violations with the DTSC last November. Under the terms of those deals, the company has set up a $9 million trust fund for cleaning up lead-contaminated soil from 219 homes. The bankrupt company also has set aside more than $38 million for closure and remediation of its property at 2700 Indiana Avenue in Vernon.

So far, Exide has cleaned up two-thirds of those homes. Authorities still have not tested two dozen homes, in some cases because they’ve had trouble making contact with landlords who don’t live at the property.

Even cleaning up a fraction of the potentially contaminated homes in the expanded area would require a dramatic increase in budget, said multiple environmental and community advocates.

According to Consumer Watchdog’s Tucker, “$200 million is a reasonable number,” including cleanup and closure of the facility.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done to close the site safely,” she said.

DTSC declined to estimate the additional costs of cleaning up additional homes. 

“It’s really difficult to put a price tag on this right now,” said Barbara Lee, the director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “It’s certainly safe to say it will be an expensive cleanup.”

Angelo Bellomo, who directs the environmental health division of Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, agreed. “Where I think we’re differing right now is the level of urgency we’re assigning to it," he said. 

Bellomo said cleanup should begin in the expanded area within a few weeks, and that the difficulty of obtaining additional funding from Exide or other sources should not slow remediation down.

“We really believe these decisions should not be driven on the limitations of funding. They should be driven on what’s required to protect the public,” he said.

Lee said that the DTSC would seek a “funding stream” to pay for cleanup, and suggested that cleanup costs would be paid back by multiple lead polluters in the industrial corridor – not just Exide.

“There may be other potentially responsible parties as well,” she said. “We are working hard to make sure that everybody who contributed to the contamination contributes to the cleanup.”

Meantime, in a statement released Friday, Exide officials said they do not believe the Vernon facility was the source for lead contamination in residential neighborhoods to the north and south of the facility.

The company commissioned a study from Mitchell Small, a professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. In the study, Small concluded that levels of lead in the homes sampled didn’t not exceed background levels derived from other sources.

“Exide believes that Dr. Small’s study establishes the limits of lead impacts from the facility. Exide has not yet read the DTSC report, and the Company intends to review it. Exide looks forward to the DTSC review and consideration of Dr. Small’s report,” the statement read.