Environmental justice and health advocate Mark Lopez was recognized with the Goldman Environmental Prize, a top honor in the field of grassroots environmental campaigns, for his work in persuading the state to invest in a comprehensive cleanup of East Los Angeles homes affected by toxic contamination.
The contamination compiled over decades from a battery recycling plant, which had been operating in the city of Vernon since 1922 with little updates or repairs. In 2000, Exide, a Georgia-based company, took over the smelter and increased production, subsequently increasing the omission levels of pollutants such as lead and arsenic.
A neurotoxin, lead accumulates in the body over time and, even in small amounts, can cause learning disabilities. There is no safe amount of lead for children.
While the plant was shut down in 2015 after a federal grand jury’s investigation, a sampling of area homes by the California Department of Toxic Substance Control found lead levels at 52,000 parts per million.
One thousand parts per million is considered hazardous waste.
Lopez, along with the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, lobbied Sacramento to test more homes and clean up those affected.
EYCEJ, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 2001 that operates in Southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach, promotes environmental and health justice in communities that are disproportionately affected by industrial pollution.
In April 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million for additional testing and to cleanup affected homes. A newly imposed battery recycling fee is set to raise additional funds for the cleanup as well for other communities that face similar environmental problems.
Now, Lopez is the co-chair of the advisory committee responsible for overseeing the cleanup and is executive director of EYCEJ.
Lopez attended UC Santa Cruz, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. He then taught courses at UC Santa Cruz, Cal State Northridge and UCLA Extension and eventually earned his masters at Cal State Northridge from the Chicanx Studies Department.
The Goldman Prize is awarded by the Goldman Environmental Foundation out of San Francisco. Each year, six grassroots activists from the six inhabited areas of the globe are recognized for the work in environmental justice.
Photo courtesy of Mark Lopez's Facebook page.