Health officials call for speedy cleanup of homes near closed battery recycling plant

- County health officials said today they are pressing state regulators to expedite the cleanup of an estimated 400 homes near the shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon that have hazardous waste-level lead contamination.

The 400 homes where soil tested for lead showed levels at or above 1,000 parts per million are the highest priority, according to Angelo Bellomo, the county's deputy director for health protection.

"We believe there is sufficient basis for ... expediting the cleanup (of soil on those properties)," Bellomo told the Board of Supervisors.

However, the DTSC is considering other criteria -- in addition to contamination levels -- in deciding how to prioritize cleanup of individual homes.

Those factors include whether children under the age of 7 or pregnant women live at a contaminated site and whether residents have a blood-lead level at or above five micrograms per deciliter, according to guidance published on the agency's website.

County officials disagree. "Everybody who is living in a house (with levels at or above 1,000 ppm) ... needs mitigation ... and needs mitigation immediately," Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board. "And that means soil removal and not laying plastic over it.'

Bellomo said he hoped initial cleanup efforts could begin in April. "I sense that (the state Department of Toxic Substances Control) is trying to do the right thing, but they seem to be going very slow," Supervisor Hilda Solis said.

DTSC documentation calls for a draft cleanup plan and environmental impact report to be finalized in June, with cleanup beginning in the summer. An agency spokeswoman confirmed those time estimates still hold, but said high-risk sites could be addressed earlier.

Properties with contamination between 400-1,000 ppm also meet federal regulatory levels for cleanup and state public health officials calculate that levels need to be below 80 ppm to eliminate lead risk.

The DTSC's proposal calls for soil to be cleaned to below 80 ppm, and agency contractors are still in the process of testing the lead levels in surrounding communities. The regulatory agency estimates that it could handle cleanup of an average of 50 properties per week and that the work would be completed within two years.

State and county personnel are wrangling over whether cleanup is warranted inside homes, according to Bellomo, with the county arguing that interiors must at least be assessed and possibly cleaned. "Community leaders are also making this point," Bellomo told the board. The agency said in December that it would offer interior cleaning, but did not specify in what cases and whether that cleaning would be to specific environmental standards or to deal with the consequences of soil removal.

The discussion about DTSC's progress was prompted when Solis asked for an update on complaints by workers employed to do soils testing. Some workers employed by DTSC contractors alleged that they have been forced to manipulate testing data, work in unsafe conditions that exposes them to contaminated soil and subjected to racist and derogatory comments by field managers, Deputy County Counsel Robert Ragland told the board.

The allegations have been referred to the state Attorney General's office. "I think the investigation has just begun," Ragland said, telling the board that the county was awaiting the results of that review.

DTSC "encourages potentially affected individuals to have their blood lead levels tested" and offers a hotline for residents with questions about cleanup at (844) 225-3887.

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