A pick axe and a heart attack: Workers suffer as they clean up toxic mess that Vernon’s old battery recycling plant left behind

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Fellowship.

When workers tasked with cleaning up toxic lead dust spilled by the Exide battery recycling plant from Guadalupe Valdovinos’ yard started packing up, she noticed they hadn’t finished. She saw a large patch of soil on her property that they hadn’t touched. 

When she insisted they missed a spot, she remembers the clean-up workers rudely said that cleaning up the untouched corner of her property “wasn’t part of the plan.” 

Valdovinos says that the apparent disregard for her home started early in the clean-up process “They would hit and break things. We expected them to repair it. They were hostile. They were they would grunt or be very like, well, we didn’t do that,” said Valdovinos, “Like, we didn’t come at them attacking them. We were just pointing out, hey. You broke something. And they took it very offensive, like, No, we didn’t do that. No, that’s not our problem. So that was another issue. Yeah, it wasn’t a friendly environment.”

She complained about the clean-up at an Environmental Board Meeting in July and addressed California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), the state agency responsible for cleaning up the mess made by Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant. For decades, Exide belched out thousands of tons of poisonous lead dust across the predominantly Latino communities surrounding the industrial city of Vernon. 

“I’m here to urge the Council and DTSC not to contract the cleaning crew National Engineering Consulting Company Group, also known as NEC because they are not professional,” said Valdovinos at the Environmental Board Meeting.

She was hardly the first to complain of sloppy standards affecting the cleanup of more than 7 million pounds of lead dust spewed out by Exide. Residents have long complained about issues with the cleanup, and now employees of the contractors responsible for the cleanup are speaking out too. Reporting by L.A. TACO found two incidents of severe injuries to subcontractor workers due to possibly unsafe working conditions and questionable treatment of poisonous lead dust.

One cleanup worker died after suffering injuries inflicted by a Bobcat digger at one site in 2020. At another, in the spring of 2022, an employee of a state contractor was severely injured by a pickax blow to their chest and shoulder area after a site was not appropriately cleared for overhead hazards. 

According to an AQMD Health Risk Assessment (released March 2013), as “many as 250,000 residents face a chronic health hazard from exposure to lead and arsenic emitted from the stacks of the [Exide] smelter and settling onto residential soil.”

Researchers and community advocates say that residents were exposed to 7 million pounds of lead that was emitted by the facility over 30 years. The neighborhoods surrounding the now-closed facility are among the most polluted in the state.

Moreover, it’s a matter of fact that Exide was allowed to operate under a temporary permit for decades while racking up citations from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (aka the DTSC).

After decades of resistance and self-advocacy from community members, including parents, the religious community, and environmental groups, Exide shut down in 2015. 

That left the state government in charge of the massive cleanup, with the state and taxpayers, including victims of the pollution, responsible for paying for the clean-up after a Delaware judge found that the company’s bankruptcy would allow it to walk away from paying. Residents were, and are, furious.

But ensuring the ongoing cleanup is held to consistent standards is proving difficult for residents and cleanup workers. The unwieldy web of government contractors and subcontractors responsible for physically digging lead dust out from residents’ homes resists accountability.

Pete Reyes, a current state-contracted cleanup worker who lives in City Terrace. Reyes says that the clean-up has been rife with “constant issues of things just not being done right,” including mistreatment of community workers, cut corners, rushed jobs, and hazardous conditions.

Reyes works daily cleaning up lead dust spilled by Exide. In an interview, he told L.A. TACO more about an incident where a worker suffered a collapsed lung after he was struck by a pickax in his chest and shoulder area.

The worker was part of a field crew assigned to clean up residential properties in Commerce. He was using a pick axe to loosen soil and did not realize he was working below a clothesline strung with wire. He hit the clothesline when he swung the axe and punctured his left shoulder. He was transported to the hospital, where he was treated.

They “didn’t realize that there was a [clothes]line” overhead, said Reyes. “So when he grabbed the pick and swung, he hit the line.” 

Reyes questions whether the supervisor on the site investigated the work area for overhead hazards, something he believes can happen because crews have strict deliverables that can result in cut corners.

Wael S. Ibrahim, Principal at National Engineering and Consulting Group for NEC said, “All work is conducted in the field pursuant to strict health and safety procedures that include requirements to clear overhead objects of any kind prior to conducting any tasks. Workers are reminded of the health and safety procedures on a daily basis prior to starting their fieldwork.”

Ibrahim claims that the injured worker was taken to a medical facility immediately and was assigned light work duties. Ibrahim also said that NEC and its subcontractors were ordered to conduct a health and safety training session.

Pete Reyes paints a different story and spoke about why the quality of residential clean-ups could be lacking.

“More than half of the workers they bring in are used to just in and out, in and out. And that’s the whole point of the faster you do a house, they still get their $60,000 per house. So if something’s [a house clean up] supposed to last five, six days, they’re doing that in two, three days. So you’re saving that time and money and making more money,” said Reyes. NEC denied that NEC, and its subcontractors are under any time constraint in a statement to L.A. TACO.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control confirmed the pick axe incident and provided the following narrative to L.A. TACO in a written statement: “The worker was part of a field crew assigned to clean up residential properties in Commerce. He was using a pick axe to loosen soil and did not realize he was working below a clothesline strung with wire. He hit the clothesline when he swung the axe and punctured his left shoulder. He was transported to the hospital, where he was treated.”

A source close to the injured worker said that the worker rested for eight days. After that, they said he was contacted by his employer, who allegedly pushed the worker to return to work immediately and expressed that his job would be in jeopardy otherwise. 

NEC said that the injured worker was not “forced” back to work. 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control confirmed that the worker was required to return to work after one week. “After discharge, he recuperated for a week at home and then was placed on light duty, primarily spraying the soil with water to provide dust suppression,” wrote Sanford Nax, a representative of the DTSC.

According to the DTSC, the injured person was a laborer for a company called Rebel Construction. Rebel is a subcontractor to National Engineering and Consulting Group Inc. (NEC), which is the company the State of California contracts with to clean lead dust from the homes and yards of residents who live near Exide’s plume of lead dust.

The DTSC said, “The incident was promptly investigated, and the contractor temporarily stopped work to hold safety discussions. Workers were reminded to assess surroundings and property conditions and to discuss these during tailgate safety meetings, which are held each morning. Additionally, if clothesline wires are present, staff were directed to not only be aware of them but to temporarily remove the wires or mark them with caution tape prior to the start of cleanup work. Staff was directed to remain away from clothesline wires when working at a property.”

The DTSC says that the contractor also notified the local Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) on the day of the incident.

L.A. TACO checked the OSHA database and did not find the incident where a worker suffered a chest injury. An OSHA rep said, “The accident was reported to Cal/OSHA on 5/9/22. Cal/OSHA did not open an investigation as there was no applicable Title 8 regulation.”

During reporting, L.A. TACO found that Rebel Contracting had a suspended license. After inquiring about the license status to a DTSC rep, the DTSC ordered NEC to temporarily remove Rebel from the Exide residential cleanup project on September 15. The DTSC says the Contractors State License Board suspended the license of subcontractor Rebel due to an administrative error on their workers’ compensation insurance.

A DTSC rep said, “DTSC also ordered NEC to ensure the pace of cleanup is not affected and urged that all current Rebel Local 12 Operators and Local 300 Laborers remain working on the project. DTSC also said it will work with NEC to develop a protocol to ensure all subcontractors meet licensing and insurance requirements outlined in project contracts.”

The DTSC said that after Rebel Contracting resolved their issue with the CA State License Board, they notified NEC on September 19th that Rebel Contracting could come back on the project.

In that instance, an AIS employee working at a site in Boyle Heights was struck by a Bobcat digger and hospitalized for eight days for injuries to his legs, ankle, and shoulder. Five days after his release, the man died of cardiac arrest. 

In a statement to L.A. TACO, NEC said, “When Rebel submitted their workers’ comp insurance policy renewal, NEC noticed an error in the policy name of the insured and immediately requested clarification from the NEC subcontractor (email notification on September 15, 2022). Unfortunately, as the subcontractor was requesting the correction from the insurance company, the California Contractors Licensing Board (CSLB) review staff noticed the error and suspended the license. The corrections were immediately made by the insurance company, and the CSLB reinstated, Retroactively, the license immediately upon receiving the corrected policy. NEC checked the CSLB license status on September 16, 2022, and found it to be “Active.” It is important to note Rebel’s worker’s comp insurance policy never lapsed during this issue.”

Despite repeated attempts, L.A. TACO was unable to make contact directly with the worker injured by the pickaxe. But people who know the injured worker say this is almost certainly because the worker who was injured is afraid of losing the job. Multiple sources who know him say he is part of the local work source program, designed to create job opportunities for residents of the cleanup area. 

It’s not the first time a worker has been injured on the job cleaning up the mess left by Exide Technologies. In the summer of 2020, another subcontractor, American Integrated Services (AIS), was investigated by OSHA

In that instance, an AIS employee working at a site in Boyle Heights was struck by a Bobcat digger and hospitalized for eight days for injuries to his legs, ankle, and shoulder. Five days after his release, the man died of cardiac arrest. 

OSHA did not open an investigation into this case until a year after the incident, in July of 2021. Eventually, they cited AIS for failing to report the fatality in a timely manner.

NEC said, “AIS followed the necessary reporting rules for this incident, including reporting the incident to OSHA, which conducted an investigation and determined that AIS did not violate any rules or regulations in connection with the incident,” in a statement to L.A. TACO.

'It’s just a little lead.' the former worker who participated in the clean-up effort recalled his co-workers saying.

Besides unsafe conditions for workers, other former cleanup workers say the pressure to clean up sites quickly means standards for preventing the toxic dust from being spread during the clean-up process are loosely followed. 

Those standards are in place to prevent public exposure to toxic metals, including wetting or vacuuming the site pavement three times a day, removing dust and debris from the pavement, maintaining a site truck wash, and collecting dust and debris throughout the cleanup site and management of waste containers.

But L.A. TACO spoke to someone who participated in the clean-up effort as an employee of an NEC contractor and said equipment for monitoring how much dust is in the air was routinely turned off during work. Another reported that soil was simply washed down

The former worker also reported that they felt uncomfortable with the disregard the clean-up crew he worked with had for working in a contaminated worksite and described a “tough guy” culture where threats to personal safety weren’t taken seriously.

 “It’s just a little lead.” the former worker who participated in the clean-up effort recalled his co-workers saying.

None of this is new when it comes to the Exide cleanup. In 2017, after residents and workers raised the alarm about unsafe work conditions, racism, and alleged attempts to circumnavigate testing standards, the California Department of Justice investigated

In that investigation of a previous contractor, the state found that workers did feel pressured to meet daily goals and that “several racially inappropriate and insensitive comments were made.”

East Yard, a community-led environmental justice organization, released a statement in July said that “East Yard calls on the DTSC to not renew the contract with National Engineering and Consulting Group, Inc. (NEC), which is worth hundreds of millions of public dollars, and for a reevaluation of DTSC’s mismanagement of the current clean-up efforts.”

“The current contractor [NEC] we feel is unsuitable. They have a track record that is terrible. There’s a new contract coming in for hundreds of millions of dollars from the state public funds.

We don’t think this contractor is appropriate to get that new contract. We think we’re in the exact right position to transition to a different contractor,” said mark! Lopez, East Yard’s Eastside Community Organizer & Special Projects Coordinator at a Board of Environmental Safety Meeting.

Not long after Valdovinos’ complaint did, state contractors return to address the patch of soil they didn’t touch the first time around. But when they arrived, Valdovinos says they just removed the soil and replaced it with sand, which blows into her neighbor’s yard.

“It’s very important for us that the cleanup process should be done properly. But this cleanup crew just comes, does the work, and then leaves that there’s no actual relation to our community to our issues.” Valdovinos said. 

L.A. TACO looked for county resources that might be available for residents impacted by Exide’s lead contamination and attempted to call the blood testing hotline, mentioned on an Exide Contamination Community Health Outreach page and was promptly met by endless promotions about “new and exciting” offers for unrelated health alert products.

After calling the Toxicology & Environmental Assessment’s Community Hotline, also mentioned on the same page, L.A. TACO was directed to  Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. On the week of October 24 to 28, L.A. will have free lead testing for residents. 

Residents can sign up here.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 California Fellowship

[This article was originally published by L.A. TACO.]

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