Do you live within 4.5 miles of the shuttered Vernon Exide facility?

Community members in this radius can get their soil tested through the “Get the Lead Out” program run by East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Email gettheleadout@[email protected] or call (323)263-2113.

SOUTHEAST LA — A community-led study of soil contamination near the shuttered Exide lead battery recycling plant has produced grim results: even after years of clean-ups, there’s still lead in the soil.

The overwhelming majority of homes tested by local researchers showed unsafe levels of lead in yard soil. This was true both for properties ostensibly cleaned-up by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) contractors, and for homes outside a 1.7 mile radius area designated by DTSC as the clean-up zone.

The findings were announced at a February 14 press conference, held in Boyle Heights by East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (a local advocacy nonprofit), in conjunction with researchers from Occidental College and the University of Southern California. The data presented at the conference, which was gathered as part of the East Yard’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative, vindicated what community members have been saying for years, that the DTSC clean-up was sloppy, and that lead has spread much further that the 1.7 radius.

The entrance to the old Exide battery recycling plant, now closed, on Bandini Blvd. in Vernon, CA. (A.F. Baumann / Los Angeles Public Press)
The entrance to the old Exide battery recycling plant, now closed, on Bandini Blvd. in Vernon, CA. (A.F. Baumann / Los Angeles Public Press)

Get Out the Lead was an innovative project, in which the nonprofit teamed up with local scientists and researchers to independently test the lead levels in soil — initial testing had been done by the state, but doubts remained. And with good reason, the findings were upsetting. Out of the 200 homes near the old plant that were independently tested by the community-lead project, an overwhelming majority of both homes that were cleaned-up and homes outside of the clean up zone tested positive for high levels of lead.

The findings seem to add insult to injury, as it was the DTSC which allowed the facility to operate for decades on a temporary permit, while Exide received numerous citations for failing abide by safety rules and continuing to spew the potent neurotoxin from across a huge swath of LA County homes and yards.

The independent research indicates that the DTSC clean-up, touted as perhaps the largest in state history, was largely botched. Indeed, since the Exide plant closed eight years ago, residents of neighboring communities, like the city of Commerce, Boyle Heights, Maywood, and Huntington Park, have been calling into DTCS’s meetings to complain and advocate for better clean up. Residents of the area have long observed shoddy clean-up practices, and these observations along with whistleblowing by the clean up workers themselves, led them to worry that their homes and yards were left with high levels of lead.

The study also showed that the lead had spread far beyond the DTSC clean-up zone. The old Exide plant sits at the corner of Bandini Blvd. and Indiana St. near the LA River, in Vernon. DTSC had opted to clean-up properties within about 1.7 miles of that plant, choosing that number at least partially for budgetary reasons. But this new research showed high lead contamination levels in a great many houses up to 4.5 miles away. 

 “I used to play in that soil. Just realizing that it was harmful to all of us, not only me, my siblings, my neighbors, and everyone else who lived there,” lamented Citlalli Islas, a teen participant of the Get the Lead Out study. “It was really hard to process.”

A look through the fence of the Exide plant. (A.F. Baumann / Los Angeles Public Press)
A look through the fence of the Exide plant. (A.F. Baumann / Los Angeles Public Press)

Taking matters into their own hands

In an effort to hold the DTSC accountable, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, USC, and Occidental College decided to team up to test homes within a larger 4.5 mile radius of the plant, including homes previously cleaned by the DTSC, and homes outside of the clean up radius. The soil sampling began in November 2021. 

“What we found was alarming…only about 21% of homes that had received the cleanup continued to have levels that met the California health based threshold. So that means in most cases, homes had lead [levels] that exceeded 80 parts per million,” said Dr. Jill Johnston, USC associate professor of population and public health sciences, at the press conference. In this case the 80 parts per million (PPM) standard means that for every kilogram of soil there are 80 milligrams of soil, and is the threshold deemed acceptable by the state of California. Though there is truly no safe level of lead, levels above that 80 PPM are deemed unacceptable.

Perhaps such findings are unsurprising, given the sluggish and problematic clean-up effort, and the fact that Exide and its predecessors have operated some kind of lead processing (initially a smelter and later recycling) from 1922 until 2015, just eight years ago — that’s over 90 years of lead dust and fumes drifting over Los Angeles.

According to researchers and community advocates, over the course of just 30 of those years nearby communities were exposed to 7 million pounds of lead. The neighborhoods surrounding the shuttered facility are among the most polluted in the state.

Data provided by East Yard, USC and Occidental Researchers show that of the 93 homes they tested, which received a cleanup, 79% had lead levels above 80 ppm in their home’s soil. In the 87 homes tested outside of the DTSC’s 1.7 mile clean-up radius, 97% had lead levels above the California standard, and of those 40% had lead levels over 400 ppm, which is the federal government’s much less stringent number for unacceptable levels of lead. (To read more, check out our companion article on lead and childhood development)

“When we looked outside of the area, neighborhoods adjacent to the cleanup zone, we found a similar pattern to what we saw before the cleanup around Exide. And that 97% of homes had elevated soil lead levels. And so this really calls attention to the need to ensure that we have a comprehensive cleanup,” said Johnston.

A community lead effort

Community members ranging in age from the aforementioned Roosevelt High School senior Citlalli Islas, to graduate researcher Francisca “Frenchy” Castro, to long-time organizers like mark! Lopez worked hard on the testing of homes near the Exide plant through the Get out the Lead initiative.

East Yard was founded in 2001 when residents of the city of Commerce and East L.A., who were concerned about industrial pollution, decided to band together and advocate for their neighborhoods. For years, East Yard pressured government agencies to shut down Exide and clean up homes poisoned by the company’s toxic plumes.

“One of the many projects that we have had to work on, not because we want to, but because we need to, as a community has been Exide. Since before the shutdown, and with folks and organizations who have been working on this to shut Exide down, to holding them accountable, to making sure the first cleanup even happened, to making sure the first two samples that were collected and homes cleaned in 2014, up until now,” said Laura Cortez, Organizer and Co-Executive Director   

It’s not just adult community-researchers and scientists who are holding the DTSC accountable. Citlalli Islas, also directly participated in the Get the Lead Out project. Islas got her home tested and informed her neighbors on how to protect themselves in an environment with an extremely high lead concentration.

The project and its results hit close to home for Islas, who grew up near the Exide plant. She explained that a lot of her neighbors were unaware that their homes were contaminated with lead, or that a clean-up was happening.

 “A lot of people didn’t know what the cleanup was about. Some people were like, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re fixing the sprinklers.’ But they weren’t fixing the sprinklers. They [DTSC contracted workers] were taking the lead out,” recounted Islas.

“The majority of the people who live there are Spanish speakers. And a lot of the pamphlets — the information — was only in English. So there was no outreach, nowhere where people could really ask questions…We had to take initiative, and we did some door knocking. And we, like, explained to people what was actually happening, and why it was important, and precautions they should take,” she continued.

Islas explained that she didn’t even think of her work as that of holding the state accountable, but rather felt like her work was something that had to happen for herself, her family, and community. Islas said that testing done under the Get the Lead out project showed that her home, which was previously cleaned up, had a high lead level of over 400 parts per million.

Islas said that the clean up at her home was done poorly, and the proof lies in her home’s high lead content.

Besides advocating for her community, Islas is maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at Roosevelt High School.

Francisca Castro, a researcher at Occidental College, is also part of the community impacted by Exide’s contamination. LA Public Press asked Francisca how it felt to hold the state accountable and now have some institutional support. 

“It’s good having a lot of the institutional…power, which means support, resources, and all that to do this,” said Castro, “At the same time, it has been very sad. Just because sometimes this institutional power is not readily available to communities.”

After soil samples are collected by East yard volunteers

Despite being grateful to be able to have some institutional power and resources to do the important work of researching the levels of lead contamination in areas near the Exide facility, the weight of the grave injustice done to Castro’s community weighs on her. 

“It has, in general, been very sad and disheartening. I do my research…I work from home, I’m looking outside, and I could see the contaminated soil,” said Castro.

 “As I’m reading [that] lead impacts your kidneys, lead has neurological impacts, and that lead impacts you throughout your life — it’s sad, because I look out the window, and I could see the soil, and I could see myself as a little kid playing there. I could see myself, you know, playing with my friends and all that and just kind of knowing that this whole time we’ve been exposed to very high levels of lead has been sad.”

“However, I will say that because of this, and because a lot of the community support, a lot of the fight that we have done as a community, especially with East Yard — you feel hope. There’s hope for us to support each other, there’s hope to give ourselves our resources, whether that is holding the state accountable, or even just supporting  ourselves, our neighbors, our community. It’s sad, but there’s a lot of hope in this,” said Castro.

Castro also explained the testing process: East Yard “Get the Lead Out” advocates go to homes within 4.5 miles of the former Exide facility and collect three soil samples from the properties. 

“We get them in these little baggies, and we have to dry them out,” explained Castro. The drying process can take up to two weeks depending on how moist the soil is. 

This probe is hammered into the soil where led contamination is suspected to retrieve the appropriate sample size for led testing.
This probe is hammered into the soil where led contamination is suspected to retrieve the appropriate sample size for led testing.

“Then, we put it in the XRF [X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy] machine, which is just a very fancy X-ray machine that zaps the soil. And then it’ll give you various metals, one of them being lead. It gives you the parts per million,” said Castro.

L.A. Public Press engagement reporter, Amanda Del Cid Lugo, lives within 4.5 miles of the Exide plant. She had the soil at her home in Huntington Park tested by East Yard organizers as a part of the “Get The Lead Out” project. Del Cid Lugo is now awaiting her lead test results, and organizers have told her the concentration will likely be high.

Del Cid Lugo said that despite expecting bad test results, that overall the testing experience for her was good. Both the East Yard testers who showed up were also affected by the Exide contamination.

“We are going through the same thing unfortunately, but it also made me feel a sense of community with them so it was good overall,” said Del Cid Lugo.

Mariah is a journalist who can be found at one of LA's many libraries, and supporting local musicians and street vendors.