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Climate and Environment

Protesters Urge State Officials To Find New Company To Handle Exide Cleanup In Southeast LA

Pete Reyes, Montebello July 2022
Pete Reyes, a resident of East L.A., holds up an image of a grandmother and granddaughter walking on contaminated soil. He submitted it, along with other images, to local and state officials.
(Julia Barajas)
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About a dozen community members rallied in front of the Montebello City Council offices this morning, calling on the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control to end its contract with the company charged with cleaning up contaminated soil throughout Southeast Los Angeles.

The contaminated soil in question was left behind by Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant in Vernon that exposed surrounding communities to lead and other toxic pollutants for decades. After declaring bankruptcy, it left California taxpayers to foot the bill for cleaning up. And though Exide was forced to shut down years ago, thousands of people living nearby are still waiting for the lead and other toxic chemicals to be removed from their homes.

At a meeting on environmental safety following Monday's rally, Meredith Williams, head of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said about 100 homes are being cleaned every month.

To date, the state has cleaned up 3,844 properties, including schools, parks and daycares. It expects to complete the work — nearly 6,000 properties in total — by March 2025.

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“We’re cleaning up at a rate that frustrates the community, but it’s what’s achievable and manageable,” she said.

Critics are raising concerns about the cleaning that is happening.

Those at the rally say National Engineering and Consulting Group Inc., the main contractor handling the Exide cleanup, is doing a poor job, leaving some parts of homes uncleaned. Former employees also say they witnessed unsafe practices and experienced abuse, including intimidation for speaking out against violations. As a result, protesters are urging the state to find a new company to handle the work.

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, and any exposure is bad. Lead exposure is especially dangerous to children, because their brains are still developing; children with lead poisoning can experience learning difficulties and behavioral problems in addition to physical problems.

Rallying The Community

Pete Reyes, who lives in East Los Angeles, missed work to be at the rally and meet with state and local officials.

“This meeting is being held during work hours,” he said. “And people from the community cannot attend because every day counts for them.”

Stephanie Morfin claims she faced retaliation for reporting violations while working on the Exide cleanup.

"Every day, we are inhaling all these bad carcinogens and stuff. And it affects our behavior, our learning process, and it's everywhere,” said Morfin. “Anybody that lives in these areas should be out here protesting and making sure that these people are doing the right thing."

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According to the department, up to 30 crews are working in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon. These crews include more than 70 residents trained through its Workforce for Environmental Restoration in Communities program, which trains and promotes hiring of residents in communities near the former Exide Technologies facility.

In an emailed statement, the Department of Toxic Substances Control said it “has become aware of two allegations of impropriety and takes these allegations very seriously. Both allegations are currently under investigation.” It also noted that the department coordinates with local unions to ensure all grievances are properly investigated.

Diana Sanchez, a community organizer for the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said it’s important that workers are protected, noting that many are coming from the affected area of Southeast L.A.

Workers “who are from the community tend to be a lot more diligent,” she said. “They're more careful when it comes to the cleanup. They don't want to cut corners, because why would they want lead in their backyards, where their family lives?”

National Engineering and Consulting Group has not responded to LAist’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, state officials are asking for the area to be designated as a Superfund site, saying that could bring in millions of federal dollars and help expedite the cleanup process.

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