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L.A. County To Create ‘Toxic Threat Strike Team’

Anna Sterling |
March 12, 2014 | 8:51 a.m. PDT

Executive Producer

 Maya Sugarman/KPCC]
Maya Sugarman/KPCC]
The L.A. Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a countywide toxic task force amid growing frustration from Boyle Heights residents that state agencies are moving too slow to address toxic pollution in their neighborhood.

Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant in Vernon, has come under fire after several studies by state air quality officials showed dangerous levels of lead and arsenic in the ground of surrounding communities.

Supervisor Gloria Molina was a major proponent of the new task force, and said at the meeting that her district is tired of waiting for action.

“We’ve gone to different [state] agencies and ask that they close [these facilities] down, and all they do is give them another opportunity to clean up and make excuses,” she said.

Increased cases of asthma and cancer in Los Angeles’ southeast communities have been a major concern, according to Sup. Molina.

High lead levels are particularly harmful for pregnant women and children. These dangers motivated state agencies to put out advisories to stay away from soil and grow vegetables in raised beds.

Residents, however, expressed frustration with the fact that the burden of safety should fall on their shoulders.

“The [Department of Toxic Substances Control] says that children should not play in the dirt,” said John Moretta, pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights. “How can you tell a child to not play in the dirt? That’s part of being a child.”

The battery recycling plant in Vernon has been operating since 1922 and has always been at odds with state agencies, according to Sup. Molina.

The goal of the toxic threat strike team is to force facilities like Exide to respect the surrounding communities by putting safety measures in place or to finally shut down, she said.

The team will combine the resources of city and county agencies like the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Public Works, with state agencies like the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“Instead of states just looking at compliance… it’ll be a public health urgency,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

Facilities like Exide Technologies and Allenco Energy Inc., which are both in low-income communities, have made a habit of evading state regulatory status, he said.

Industrial sites have been operating in close proximity to residential communities, raising a “very fundamental quality of life question,” said Sup. Ridley-Thomas.

People who commented at the Board of Supervisors meeting, however, had much clearer and direct accusations toward these industrial facilities.

“I will actually go on a limb and call it environmental racism,” said Patty Bilgin, assistant city attorney in the Environmental Protection Unit. “The quality of air you breathe and water you drink should not be dictated by the color of your skin or ethnicity.”

Teresa Marquez, a retired banker who was born and raised in Boyle Heights, traveled a lot when she was working.

“Every time I took a vacation [and was home] for at least a week, I would wind up getting sick with a sinus problem,” she said.

She figured these regular sicknesses were a result of seasonal changes, until she retired and lived in Boyle Heights full-time.

“The doctors could not figure out why all of a sudden [I was sick,]” said Marquez, who now suffers from respiratory problems and asthma attacks. “It was the environment. I had to install central air in my house just to be able to breathe.”

Reach Executive Producer Anna Sterling here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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