In a powerful, solemn voice, Anthony Gutierrez appealed directly to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for help.
"Even though Exide is closed, I am still sick," said Gutierrez, who is 25 years old but could pass for 15, as he testified during a fall Board of Supervisors meeting. "I have had many operations. I have cancer. I am asking that the Board of Supervisors help us clean our neighborhoods.
"Help us," said Gutierrez, who has a visible scar running across his scalp - a reminder of his numerous operations.
Gutierrez's story is not unique. Since taking office in December 2014, I have met with family after family living in the cities around the Vernon plant with similar tragic stories. They say their children were born with developmental disorders and cognitive impairments. They tell me about hard working relatives who lived near the plant and now battle cancer.
The Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon operated for 33 years without a proper permit from the state environmental agency and without adequate enforcement of environmental regulations. The toxic waste that spewed from its smokestacks exposed at least 100,000 County residents to dangerous chemicals.
Even though threatened federal criminal charges forced the plant to close in March, current and former residents will live the rest of their lives with a greatly heightened risk of cancer and other illnesses. As long as lead remains in the ground and inside homes, residents are still being exposed. Children cannot play outside in the yard without risking their health.
For too long, state regulators turned a blind eye as homeowners and employees near the Exide plant in Vernon suffered in the shadows of the factory's billowy smoke. Though the state has sole jurisdiction and full legal responsibility for the required cleanup, my colleagues and I on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to help these residents by setting aside $2 million dollars to accelerate the assessment of homes that may face severe contamination, to ensure that cleanup standards are highly protective of residents' health, and to launch a multi-lingual public health campaign. Our actions seek to give this issue the urgency it demands.
On Jan. 26, I testified at a state Assembly Toxics Committee to advocate on behalf of these residents. They have patiently waited for too long. Their homes, playgrounds and yards are not safe. Amelia Vallejo knows this all too well.
Vallejo last fall told the Board of Supervisors that her son was born with developmental disabilities. Eight other children on her block were also born with developmental disabilities. "Enough is enough," she said. "Please help us clean our communities."
No one who is privileged to serve the public interest can reasonably sit by as Anthony, Amelia, and other residents continue to seek a solution to one of the greatest environmental justice calamities in California history. Governmental institutions at all levels, and particularly the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, must do more and do it faster. To date, DTSC has only cleaned the inside and outside of 44 homes out of the 10,000 that they acknowledge may be contaminated by Exide's hazardous emissions.
So long as these residents continue to suffer harm based on where they can afford to live, we must all join them to get the help that they need. As an elected official in a country that believes that government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people, I implore all of the relevant agencies to join with us and do their part to address this crisis.