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How I sought to bring home the Exide disaster for Spanish-speaking audiences

How I sought to bring home the Exide disaster for Spanish-speaking audiences

Picture of Rubén Tapia
Delia Terrazas and her son José Antonio are among those impacted by lead contamination from the now-shuttered Exide battery plan
Delia Terrazas and her son José Antonio are among those impacted by lead contamination from the now-shuttered Exide battery plant in Los Angeles.
(Photo by Rubén Tapia)

I had a plan. My plan was to continue my reporting on the residents impacted by the toxic contamination from Vernon’s Exide battery recycling plant. What were their biggest concerns? Would the state take action to speed up remediation efforts in the contaminated zones?

The project, supported by a grant from the Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund, was also planning to examine the actions being taken in Sacramento to deal with the series of delays that have been hindering the cleanup work, hailed as “the largest residential cleanup project in the history of California.”
But then as I was preparing to start my field reporting, California declared a state of emergency to slow the spread of coronavirus, mandating a shelter-in-place order, social distancing and other safety restrictions.

Unable to conduct in-person interviews, I had to rethink my plans and conduct interviews by telephone. During this process, I was able to attend a series of very helpful webinars convened by the center to help me better prepare to work remotely and use online tools to improve my digital reporting work.
By the fourth month of my reporting timeline, in May, my status at Radio Bilingüe changed. I became a full-time employee and as a result I had to invest additional time to adjust to the new responsibilities and learn the ropes of my new position, further postponing my reporting project.
When I was finally able to focus on my Exide project, I realized that while the frustrations, grievances and petitions from the neighbors in the contaminated area were the same, there were new and important developments impacting the story of their health and the cleanup remediation.

One new development was the coronavirus outbreak. The Southeast Los Angeles area soon became a hotspot for the pandemic. Hundreds of neighbors suffering from conditions related to toxic contamination suddenly had an added new dangerous threat: They were at high risk of infection and severe illness from the new deadly disease.

The other development was a legislative bill crafted by lawmakers from the impacted area, which sought to reform the state agency in charge of the cleanup to make it more responsive to vulnerable communities and make polluters pay for the environmental damage. The bill reached a moment of truth. While the reform plan had strong support in the state legislature, it was eventually rejected by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The third major twist on the story was that the Exide plant, after filing for bankruptcy protection, got the green light from a federal court and the Trump administration to abandon the toxic site, which threatened to leave the impacted communities at risk of been exposed to even more contamination and the California taxpayers with the cleanup bill.
To expand my reporting, I went back to Southeast Los Angeles to talk with two families, three leading community advocates and one physician to revisit the health challenges and the plight of the contaminated communities. I also interviewed three policymakers from Los Angeles County and the state of California, as well as the head of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Through this reporting, our listeners learned about the higher rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalization in the most contaminated areas of Southeast Los Angeles. They heard the voices of local community advocates complaining about discrimination and about the shortcomings of the cleanup plan. They heard a new report from DTSC officials about the agency’s strategy for cleaning up the worst contaminated areas. They learned about the ongoing review by the state auditor looking into public complaints about the cleanup contract costs and timelines or delays. Listeners got different views on the so-far unsuccessful legislative project that seeks to reform the state DTSC agency. And they heard a discussion about the pros and cons of a proposed local agency to manage the residential cleanup in a way similar to the water quality authority that was created to clean up the waters of the San Gabriel basin.

Also, through Radio Bilingüe’s flagship talk show Línea Abierta. we were able to give a timely report to radio and online audiences about the ultra-fast-track convening of a virtual public forum to hear comments from the public about the plans of the federal government to address the abandoned toxic site left by Exide.
While much of this reporting on Exide has been available to news consumers of mainstream English language media in Los Angeles and California, the stories are largely absent from Spanish-language media, especially from the radio airwaves. Spanish speaking residents are hardly getting these stories.

For these Spanish-speaking audiences, we were able to produce and broadcast two 10-minute feature reports that aired on Radio Bilingüe’s nationally-distributed program Edición Semanaria, two online stories with transcriptions and images, and one on-air panel that aired on Radio Bilingüe’s network talk show Línea Abierta, which showcased the views on the response to the toxic disaster from a community leader, a local lawmaker, a state legislator, and a representative from the state toxic substances agency. All this content has also been made available to online audiences via live audio streaming, audio-on-demand archives and podcasts.  

In this project, I had the privilege of being mentored by NPR veteran Catherine Stifter, who guided my reporting project through pertinent questions. She helped me be more aware of the content that I had gathered and gave me guidance on structuring the story. 

We believe that these stories helped our listening communities — especially those in the impacted areas — continue being informed, and helped facilitate conversations between local neighbors and leaders with state officials. But it has been harder to document any evidence of social impact. Our stories have been competing for attention with a constant flow of shocking news developments in areas like the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis, and the elections.

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