As part of community cleanup efforts near the former Exide Technologies lead battery recycling facility in Vernon, California, 30 Los Angeles-area residents will soon have jobs testing homes, schools, parks, and other properties for lead dust contamination.
The University of California at Los Angeles Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA-LOSH), funded in part by NIEHS, celebrated completion of two weeklong hazardous materials safety training classes for the workers on Aug. 15. The training was part of the first phase of a new workforce development program organized by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The program provides employment opportunities for the residents in communities most affected by Exide.
“This is an important step in efforts to address critical environmental and economic problems in the region,” said Linda Delp, Ph.D., UCLA-LOSH director. “We are glad to have NIEHS resources to advance cleanup and workforce development initiatives.”
Lead contamination around homes
Exide operated its Vernon facility for more than three decades with outdated pollution controls, as well as repeated air quality and hazardous waste violations. According to DTSC estimates, the plant was responsible for contaminating an estimated 10,000 homes and other nearby properties with lead dust and other toxins before closing in March 2015.
The first phase of the cleanup operation will involve soil sampling and lead assessment of properties within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant. After that, the agency plans to focus on at least 2,500 properties within the impacted area that have the highest levels of lead dust contamination, and homes with young children or pregnant women.
Employing residents of affected communities
DTSC requires that at least 40 percent of the jobs on these community cleanup projects be awarded to residents of the affected communities, including Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Huntington Park, Vernon, and Commerce.
A workforce development program, known as Workforce for Environmental Restoration in Communities, or WERC, was created to train community residents for the new job opportunities. Participants receive college credits for training and work experience, access to health care and other resources, pre-employment life skills training, and employment support. The first group of 30 WERC program participants was recruited in July.
Helping workers protect safety and health
The 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) course provided by UCLA-LOSH prepares workers to conduct environmental cleanup while protecting their own health. Support is provided by the NIEHS Worker Training Program through the Western Region Universities Consortium.
WERC participants who completed the UCLA-LOSH course were trained in identifying unknown chemical hazards, proper air monitoring and sampling procedures, use of personal protective gear, and site safety plans. The highlight of the week was a field exercise in which students conducted a mock hazmat response and cleanup activity.
“We are excited that this model program at UCLA is supporting important and highly relevant environmental health and safety job training to the residents around the Exide site,” said Sharon Beard, NIEHS industrial hygienist.
At least 20 WERC graduates have already been hired by contractors to conduct soil sampling and lead assessment fieldwork in the communities around Exide. DTSC plans to recruit more WERC staff in the coming months as additional employment opportunities arise.
(Kevin Riley, Ph.D., is director of research and evaluation for UCLA-LOSH, and associate director of the Western Region Universities Consortium.)