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Gov. Brown drops opposition to CEQA review of Exide cleanup

Excavation crews measure a dump truck to see if it will fit in the driveway of a private property. After removing lead-polluted soil, crews will replace it with clean fill soil.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A member of a crew removing lead-tainted soil from a property around the old Exide plant.

In response to community objections, the Brown administration has dropped its opposition to a California Environmental Quality Act review of an expanded cleanup of lead around the old Exide plant, the head of the state toxics agency said Wednesday. The dispute had been holding up action on Gov. Brown's proposal for $177 million to fund the effort.

When he asked for the funds last month, Brown proposed exempting the cleanup from the Act as a way to expedite the process.

In testimony before the Assembly Resources and Transportation subcommittee Wednesday, Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said Brown's administration will no longer insist on an exemption from the Act.  "It has become clear that many community representatives would prefer that we use the full CEQA process to review the cleanup plan," she said.

Lee added that "the full CEQA process ... will delay the start of this cleanup until spring of 2017, at the soonest" so the administration "remains open to working with community leaders and the legislature to explore ways to expedite CEQA review."

The governor's shift in position will clear the way for quick approval of the cleanup bill, said State Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

“Now that we’ve settled the concerns about the CEQA process, my urgency legislation to expedite delivery of the cleanup funds will move quickly," he said.

Because the bill is designated as "urgency legislation" the $176.6 million - funded as a loan from the general fund to be repaid by those responsible for the lead contamination — would be dispersed immediately upon passage.

Community groups had argued that waiving the requirements of the Environmental Quality Act could endanger the health and well-being of the people affected by the contamination and the cleanup, said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and a member of the state's Exide community advisory board.

"This shows that the governor is starting to be responsive to our communities and so we look forward to continually engaging with him and his office so that as we move forward we are doing this in the most health protective way possible," Lopez said.

"This is the correct thing to do to protect the community," said David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organization had argued that exempting the project from the Environmental Quality Act would be "inappropriate and unnecessary."

Activists say the additional time environmental review adds to the cleanup is worth it, given the protections of the Environmental Quality Act. They are optimistic they can work on ways to expedite the process.

"I don’t think it needs to take a year," Lopez said. "A lot of work has been laid down by us and other community groups and with the Department of Toxic Substances Control and [air quality regulators] and the advisory group. The more we can work together the quicker this will all move."

The Environmental Quality Act requires agencies to identify, avoid and mitigate environmental impacts of the work they do. Along with ensuring that the removal of tons of contaminated soil won't create more problems, activists say they want the community input process ensured by the Act.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who will carry the bill in the Assembly, said he is "encouraged” but still “vigilant” because there are many more steps in the process.

“CEQA includes all the strong environmental protections and we are going to push for the highest quality clean up," he said.

Until now, Toxic Substances Control had said the $177 million would enable it to clean up around 2,500 of the most contaminated properties by June 2018. If the project moves forward under the full CEQA process and begins in spring 2017, Toxic Substances Control says the earliest that part of the project would be completed would be fall 2019.

Exide smelted batteries in Vernon until last year, when the state ordered it to shut down after it operated for decades on a temporary permit. At the time, Toxic Substances Control said a few hundred homes closest to the site would be tested and cleaned up. Last August, the agency said up to 10,000 properties could be contaminated in a 1.7 mile radius around the smelter.

Since then, of the more than 1,000 properties that have been tested by the state and L.A. County, nearly all will need to be cleaned up and one in five showed lead levels higher than 1,000 parts per million, considered the highest priority for cleanup by the state agency.

Lee also said Wednesday that the California Department of Public Health has given the state Environmental Protection Agency "an analysis of blood lead levels for children in the area surrounding the Exide facility." The information "will be used to further refine and target our testing and cleanup," she said.

This story has been updated.