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Officials Worry That Deportation Fears Could Hinder Much-Needed Exide Contamination Outreach

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The infamous Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon permanently shuttered in 2015, but its toxic effects still linger. Half a dozen Southeast L.A. communities were exposed to decades of lead and arsenic pollution from the plant, and California’s largest lead contamination cleanup remains ongoing. More than 100,000 people who live, work, and play near the former Exide plant may still be at risk, according to the Department of Public Health. But even as County Supervisor Hilda Solis launches an unprecedented effort to conduct door-to-door community outreach, current political reality could hinder the efficacy of those much-needed efforts to educate and gather health information from residents.

The Daily News reports that the biggest challenge likely facing the 1,500 volunteers planning to conduct door-to-door outreach this Saturday stems from an unlikely source: President Trump's immigration policies. In the largely Latino neighborhoods of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon, deportation fears have increased in lockstep with news of raids and hardline immigration enforcement tactics.

The volunteers will be wearing royal blue shirts to clearly identify themselves as members of the outreach effort, but they will still have to contend with the possible misconception that they are somehow involved with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fear "runs so deep that Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis implored the community during a Wednesday news conference not to be scared," the Daily News reports.

“We understand there is a growing fear with an uptick in immigration raids and deportation cases. However, our communities should feel safe on Saturday as County and community members will be going door-to-door to best understand the social and health needs of our communities affected by the former Exide Battery Recycling Plant in Vernon," Supervisor Hilda Solis told LAist.

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"I'm afraid that when people see a stranger at their door, they may be confused and not want to open the door, let alone allow that stranger to come into their house," Monsignor John Moretta of Boyle Heights' Resurrection Church told LAist. Moretta's congregants have dealt with the ill effects of the former Exide plant, and the priest has been involved with planning the outreach efforts. "People know their best sanctuary is their house, because if immigration does come there, they can't enter unless they have a warrant," he said.

"It's not just recently. Anytime there's enforcement of the immigration laws, or when people start making raids, there's always going to be a fear. Right now, with the process of President Trump speaking about throwing so many people out of the country, and how he considers a whole group of people bad—sure, that's going to be a problem for the community. If you were living here, and you didn't have any papers, you'd fear for that," Moretta told LAist.

According to Moretta, many in the surrounding communities are still not fully aware of the extent of the toxicity, making the continued outreach efforts especially urgent. "You can still see little kids playing around, in dirt, and people do not understand the significance of the amount of contamination that's present in the community," he said.

During the Saturday outreach efforts, the County Department of Public Health plans to visit more than 10,000 homes within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, according to City News Service. The health officials and volunteers will ask the residents a series of questions about possible health issues, and link them with available services and educational materials. A report will also be developed based on findings from the survey, which will then be shared with the community. KPCC reports that the outreach effort comes ahead of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control's release of their final plan for expanded cleanup in the area, which could begin as soon as this summer and include thousands of homes.

"Thousands of people still have not been given appropriate information about the contaminants or been connected to the appropriate resources to improve their lives," Supervisor Solis said at Wednesday's press conference. "It is important we continue connecting our residents to the information and support they need to protect their health and their families."

“We want to ensure that the county understands the concerns of residents within the Exide area and that the residents are supported in their right to live in healthy neighborhoods and homes,” Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement.

Moretta told LAist that he had told his congregants not to be afraid, "because it's the county health department that's making this survey. It's in the interest of the community and in the interest of the families there to cooperate and to make an assessment of what the status of the health of the people there is."

But at the end of the day, he still worries that deportation fears could potentially hurt the outreach efforts. "We'll wait and see," he said. "There are going to be so many people out in the streets doing this that I think word will spread around that these are health workers and not La Migra."

"We urge the community to welcome our volunteers and express their concerns to them. Our goal is to get a better understanding about the social and health needs of our residents and also offer resources and assistance that can improve their well-being," Solis told LAist.

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