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Public health officials to offer lead screening tests; battery recycler asked to pay, but can it?

At Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, September 9, 2013, people and politicians from east LA and surrounding cities talked about how to pressure Exide Technologies to operate more safely in Vernon.
At Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, September 9, 2013, people and politicians from east LA and surrounding cities talked about how to pressure Exide Technologies to operate more safely in Vernon.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health says it will offer blood testing for lead -- a direct consequence of community concerns about toxic pollution from Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant in Vernon. 

The idea is to calm concerns in neighborhoods around the facility. But public statements from health officials and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control are raising questions about the testing and who will pay for them.

Exide Technologies has spent most of the year in trouble with air and toxics regulators, its creditors and people living in nearby Huntington Park, Maywood, Boyle Heights and other parts of east L.A. 

See a timeline of developments at Exide's Vernon plant

A study by the South Coast Air Quality District released in March found an elevated cancer risk from arsenic emissions for people working in the immediate area and for those living in a wider radius around the plant. 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control ordered the plant to close, pointing to that study and to leaky pipes thought to be leaking toxic chemicals into the ground.

At a public meeting in Boyle Heights on Monday night, Monsignor John Moretta led a discussion of residents and political leaders in the neighborhoods near the plant. Members of the community expressed interest in testing children in the area for toxic exposure.

Former Huntington Park mayor Ric Loya suggested that testing urine for arsenic would give some answers to the community, and that it wasn’t expensive. Among the people at the meeting was Supervisor Gloria Molina’s field deputy Michael Oropeza.

On Friday morning, public health officials confirmed plans to offer lead screening for anyone who is concerned that they’ve been exposed. County officials said they had been working with Molina’s office.

Now the DTSC, which we reported some weeks ago was nearing a deal with Exide, says it has been talking to the company about blood testing, including the possibility of conditioning an operating permit (something Exide has never had) on such tests. DTSC and the county say they’re working together, and with the air district, to create a plan for free blood lead screening.

“Public Health is working under the direction of the County Board of Supervisors and partner agencies to determine specific outreach boundaries,” according to the county’s statement.

County officials said they were aiming to complete testing by the end of October and said Exide would pay for it. One possible problem is that Exide has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in Delaware bankruptcy court – which means any money to pay for the testing would be subject to judicial approval. 

“The testing would require approval by a bankruptcy judge,” wrote DTSC’s Tamma Adamek in an email. “If it is not approved, we would evaluate whether we can require the testing as part of the permitting process.” 

County officials say testing blood for arsenic isn’t reliable. So the agencies can rely on dust and soils evaluations to understand the risk from arsenic, wrote Brian Johnson, Deputy Director for DTSC’s Hazardous Waste Management Program.

Dust sampling around the plant is underway, and soils testing is planned for next month. 

“That information combined with the blood lead level testing will help us understand if additional investigation is warranted.” Johnson wrote in a statement.

Lead poisoning can contribute to developmental and learning disabilities in kids. It can damage nerves and cause cancer. Arsenic, too, causes cancer. Numerous other toxic chemicals released in the battery smelting and recycling process pose risks to the community. The DTSC hasn’t done a risk analysis for the site and hasn’t tested for these chemicals lately. It also hasn’t explained to the community what the presence of these chemicals mean.

On top of that, the county’s policy of testing anyone concerned about lead exposure is far different from a targeted, scientifically designed lead screening of the kind the DTSC’s Johnson described -- one designed “to ensure that we have scientific and health data on which we can base future decisions regarding Exide’s responsibilities.”

The county’s announcement about blood screening was supposed to provide answers. But until it’s clear what the county, the DTSC and air regulators are doing -- and with what money, they’re raising more questions than offering answers.