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Audit Slams State Agency’s Botched Exide Cleanup

Who was watching the watchdogs as the cleanup of lead contamination on L.A.’s Eastside ran out of money?




Photo: Joanne Kim

The Department of Toxic Substance Control’s (DTSC)poor management” of the residential cleanup around the former Exide lead battery recycling facility has put the project significantly behind schedule and resulted in millions of dollars in cost overruns, all while increasing the amount of time residents are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of lead contamination. That’s according to a recent state auditor’s damning report into the cleanup.

Misidentification of some contaminated properties alone delayed their cleanup for more than a year and a half.

Some of the findings in the audit, which legislators first requested in February, mirror those already reported in a series of Capital & Main investigations into the residential cleanup around Exide, a facility that for decades spewed a toxic brew of lead, arsenic and other contaminants into communities that are among the most environmentally burdened in the state, impacting some 100,000 people. Among the report’s main findings:

  • DTSC had, as of June, failed to clean 31of 50 properties where lead contamination poses an especially high risk to children, and  remediated only one of these properties since May 2018.
  • The DTSC is “significantly behind schedule” and unlikely to meet its goal of remediating 3,200 of the most contaminated properties by June 2021. Given the current pace of cleanup, these properties won’t be remediated until August 2022.
  • The agency does not have an established “timeline or strategy” for remediating the roughly 4,600 remaining properties contaminated above a cleanup threshold.
  • Given DTSC’s current spending rate, the estimated total cost of the cleanup project will be $650 million. The California taxpayer has already paid more than $260 million towards the cleanup.

Arguably the most highly critical aspect of the report concerns the 31 of 50 contaminated properties—including childcare centers, schools and parks—that were earmarked for priority cleanup back in 2014 but which still hadn’t been remediated as of June.

Report: The extended delay in the decontamination of targeted properties has “unnecessarily put the children who may visit them at higher risk” of mental and physical harm from lead poisoning.

The report takes particular issue with the agency’s ownership misidentification of some of these properties, which alone delayed cleanup at these properties “for over a year and a half.”

The extended delay in cleanup has “unnecessarily put the children who may visit them at higher risk” of mental and physical harm from lead poisoning, the report further warns.

In April Capital & Main reported that the Parsons Group, one of the residential cleanup’s main contractors, was operating at a cost significantly higher than the agreed upon amount, largely due to an open ended time and materials contract the company had signed with the state.

Auditors confirmed that “DTSC now has less funding to . . . continue the cleanup” because it paid the Parsons engineering services firm about $17 million more than anticipated.

Capital & Main later reported that Parsons had already spent roughly three-quarters of its $82 million budget to clean less than half of the 1,610 residences for which it was responsible.

The audit confirmed that DTSC paid Parsons about $17 million more than anticipated because “it did not establish adequate protections in its agreement” with the company. As a result, “DTSC now has less funding to secure another contractor to continue the cleanup.”

Capital & Main has repeatedly asked the DTSC for the number of homes that wouldn’t be cleaned as a result of cost overruns, given current funding. The audit finally answers that question. Given the $251 million the state has provided to the DTSC to complete the cleanup of 3,200 of the most contaminated properties, 269 won’t be remediated, the report estimates, while slamming the DTSC for cost estimates based on “outdated and inaccurate” data.

Beyond those 3,200 priority residences, the report criticizes the DTSC for failing to develop a financial plan and timeline for cleaning the remaining 4,600 properties contaminated above a target threshold, the lack of which has reduced the “transparency of the cleanup effort.”

The audit, however, doesn’t explain whether Estrada Courts, a low income housing community with 414 homes and 1,122 residents, 326 of whom are children under 18, is going to add even more parcels of contaminated land to the waiting list. That ambiguity stems from the fact that the state still hasn’t tested the 77 parcels that comprise soils around Estrada Courts, according to a recent Capital & Main report.

What’s more, according to the audit and figures recently provided to Capital & Main by the DTSC, it remains unclear if there’s enough current funding to remediate any Estrada Courts parcels potentially contaminated above the priority 300 parts per million lead level. Sampling there is scheduled to begin Dec. 7, “and those results will determine whether Estrada Courts will be prioritized,” an agency spokesperson wrote.

In a letter to the state auditor, DTSC director Meredith Williams takes umbrage with aspects of the report, arguing that the cleanup rate is better than on comparable projects, that unanticipated factors have hampered progress on the project and that the absence of a detailed cleanup plan for the remaining 4,600 properties is due to lack of funding. At the same time, Williams emphasizes the sheer scale of the project, writing that “only one other site in the nation exceeds the size of DTSC’s residential cleanup.”

For affected residents like Felipe Aguirre, who lives in Maywood, the audit confirms what he had long suspected: The DTSC has repeatedly kept the community in the dark about important aspects of the project. “They don’t consider us a partner,” he said, before urging tougher governmental oversight of the project and the agency in general. “They’re spending our money, taxpayer money, to clean up a mess that they were complicit in.”

A joint legislative hearing on the audit has been scheduled for Monday, Nov. 16.

Co-published by Patch

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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