County workers have moved quickly to assess soil, arrange cleanup and reach out to 500 families living near the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant, where a recent study found children have higher levels of lead in their blood, a public health official told the board of supervisors Tuesday.
Staffers have focused on homes in East Los Angeles, Commerce and Maywood, sending out a dozen three-person teams to sample and test for lead, Department of Public Health Interim Director Cynthia Harding told the supervisors.
The board, frustrated by the pace of the response from state regulators, recently asked DPH to intervene.
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Harding said her department sampled and tested 500 properties in less than three weeks.
A contractor for Exide took about two and a half months to assess 50 homes, while the state Department of Toxic Substances Control managed to get to the same number of homes in two weeks, according to Harding.
"We did 50 homes a day," Harding told the board.
DTSC is also working on cleanup, and Harding said the agencies were coordinating, via weekly meetings, to "make sure we're not stepping on one another's toes."
Harding said 83 percent of residents received results of county soil tests the next day, along with information on available health resources. The balance of the residents weren't home when county employees stopped by multiple times.
Public health nurses were sent to visit the 45 homes where lead levels were found to be at hazardous waste levels, above 1000 parts per million.
All but eight of the 500 homes, four of which had no soil at all, had levels at least in excess of the DTSC threshold for remediation, Harding said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said state staffers failed in their outreach to residents. They didn't explain how residents should protect themselves from potentially contaminated soil and didn't bother to tell families who had to vacate their homes during cleanup about vouchers for temporary housing, she
"DTSC really has to pay attention to what the needs are of this community," Solis said. "There are many people who have already suffered enough."
In addition to continuing community outreach on soil testing and health education, county officials continue to press for faster action by the state and have thrown their support behind bills which call for $176.6 million in funding for cleanup.
Solis characterized it as a David and Goliath-like fight.
"We're David and we're up against some very big lobbying guns up there," Solis said.
The $176.6 million in funding for further testing and environmental cleanup has been approved by the state Senate and is pending a vote by the Assembly.
State officials said the money would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.
The study performed by the state Department of Public Health at the request of DTSC found that children under age 6 who lived near the plant — which was permanently closed in March 2015 — were likely to have more lead in their blood than children in Los Angeles County overall.
According to the study, 3.58 percent of young children who live within a mile of the plant had levels of 4.5 micrograms of lead or more per deciliter of blood. Among children who lived between one and 4.5 miles of the plant, 2.41 percent had 4.5 micrograms or more.
According to DTSC, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers 5 micrograms or greater to be an indicator of significantly high lead levels requiring public health action. California's baseline, however, is 4.5 micrograms.
Although the study focused on proximity to the plant, researchers found that the age of housing was a contributing factor to lead levels, noting that homes closer to the facility tend to be older. The age of housing is significant, since lead levels in paint were not regulated until 1978.
When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.
As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.