There's a New Team in Town - the LA Toxic Strike Team

There’s a new team in town. And impending March Madness aside, it’s not about basketball or any other sport for that matter.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously yesterday to create a countywide “Toxic Threat Strike Team” to help protect public health and the environment in overburdened communities. I spoke on behalf of NRDC at the Board of Supervisors hearing to support the motions by Supervisors Molina and Ridley-Thomas. The Strike Team will help agencies leverage resources to protect people’s health and clean up the communities where they live, learn, work, and play.

The vote came on the heels of state officials finding elevated lead levels in homes and schools near the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, CA. One of the motivations for Supervisor Molina’s proposal was the need for speedy action to address toxic pollution from the Exide plant. And it’s not just lead. It won’t come as a surprise to the surrounding community to hear that California EPA’s CalEnviroScreen tool shows that Vernon is one of the top five most heavily burdened zip codes in the entire state.

Communities all over LA have been working for years to ensure that facilities in overburdened communities, like the Exide facility in Vernon, are cleaned up. Community concerns over health and the environment are played out again and again across the county and the state – in Vernon, at Jordan Downs in Watts, and in too many other communities. Statewide, CalEnviroScreen data shows that these burdens fall disproportionately on Latino and Black communities. According to an outside expert in a recent LA Times article, the data shows that this disparity is more than just a function of lower incomes.

Establishing a County Toxic Threat Strike Team can serve as an additional tool to help ensure a rapid response to cumulative health risks from polluting facilities in our most highly burdened communities, like Vernon. The Strike Team – whose core members come from the Department of Public Health, District Attorney, County Counsel, Department of Public Works, and the Fire Department  -- will work to identify such facilities using the CalEnviroScreen tool and to develop plans for ensuring that agencies act quickly. By facilitating coordination among agencies, the Strike Team will enable agencies to better leverage resources and develop and implement comprehensive and timely solutions to avoid, minimize, and mitigate health and environmental impacts.

Perhaps most importantly from my perspective is that this Strike Team can play a proactive role in community outreach and engagement. The affected community should have a meaningful role on the team. This is critical to ensuring that communities’ concerns are heard through informed public input, and addressed through agency action. Agencies must ensure that people have the information they need to know and understand potential health and environmental risks they face in their communities. And agencies should respond and be accountable to public input and concerns.

The Board of Supervisors vote yesterday creates one more tool to protect public health and the environment in overburdened communities. For our part, we will keep watching and working to make sure this new tool is used effectively and accountably. I’ll keep you posted on the Strike Team’s first report due in 90 days.