Community Demands Shutdown and Clean-up of Toxic Exide battery Site

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Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the Oct. 16 bankruptcy ruling in Exide Technologies favor.

On Oct. 16, federal judge, Christopher Sontchi, approved Exide Technologies bankruptcy plan that will allow the company to skirt costs and cleanup of a southern California battery-recycling plant that for decades poisoned surrounding neighborhoods. This, despite more than 500 families across southeast Los Angeles County who lived in an environmental disaster zone for the last several decades had stayed on a phone queue for hours to speak out on the company’s proposed bankruptcy. The former battery recycling that operated for 33 years in the city of Vernon. City leaders from across Southeast Los Angeles, County agencies, and various community organizations were in the queue.

While acknowledging the long-term negative health effects of lead, Judge Sontchi dismissed any suggestion that there was an “imminent, immediate harm to the general public if the property is abandoned.”

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) held the public hearing on Oct. 13 with little advance notice on Exide Technologies’ plan to abandon their contaminated Vernon site. The former battery recycling company operated for 33 years in the city of Vernon, leaving behind the largest environmental super-fund disaster-site the largest in the state of California.

The company manufactures the widest range of storage batteries in the world. Exide Technologies, worth $1.1 billion and traded on the New York Stock Exchange, has four major lead-acid battery recycling facilities — two in the US; others in  Spain and Portugal. The company claims that 99 percent of lead processed through these facilities is recycled. Exide recycled 11 million auto batteries in Vernon annually, releasing 3,500 tons of lead into the atmosphere in the process.

Five years ago, Exide agreed to a settlement to clean-up the Vernon site in exchange for not being prosecuted by the state. They have reneged according to the public comments by politicians, scientists, government and health department officials. 

The Exide Technologies website tells a different story, claiming that the company recovers 99% of all lead received at our recycling centers. “Every year we recycle millions of pounds of lead and recover and neutralize millions of gallons of sulfuric acid,” the website read.

Families affected by Exide’s lead poisoning questioned the company’s claims, by asking why the surrounding land at the Vernon site, covering about nine square miles is contaminated with lead, with some estimates of up to 17 miles given wind dispersal.

Lead, even in small quantities, has an immediate impact on brain functioning, especially among infants and youth in the formative stages of brain development. That is why it has been completely removed from paint and gasoline which incorporated lead, as well as colorants on kitchenware, for decades.

Lead is a neurotoxin, and there is no level that is considered safe in humans. Lead poisoning can impact children’s growth, learning and behavior, and there are no obvious symptoms or signs

In 2019,the journal Environmental Science & Technology reported the results of their study on lead in Vernon. 

According to science journal, “Fifty baby teeth collected from 43 children within a 1.7-mile radius of the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon all tested positive for lead. 

The results showed lead entered while babies were still developing inside their mother’s womb. Communities with the highest level of soil contamination — Boyle Heights and East L.A. — were also where children had the highest lead levels in their teeth, the researchers said.

“Higher lead in teeth means higher lead in the brain, kidney and bones,” lead author Jill Johnston with USC’s Keck School of Medicine said in a statement. “Testing women for lead during pregnancy, or even earlier, as they enter child-bearing age, may be needed to decrease lead exposure to their future offspring.”

Experts believe as many as 10,000 properties and up to 100,000 people in the area could have poisonous lead in their soil. 4700 properties have been tested and need remediation. California has already put in $200 million. The communities are more than 90% Latinx.

Jay Strickler from Washington opened the hearing on behalf of the Justice Department and EPA.

“Exide has operated a lead battery plant in Vernon, CA for decades and in May 2020, filed for bankruptcy despite valuation of $1.1 billion.” They previously also filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

The proposed settlement, backed by the DOJ and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) according to Strickler would, “Reduce chaotic abandonment. Exide will transfer the Vernon facility and 16 others to an environmental trust. Clean-up would occur, to the extent possible with $25 million total from the company.”

Vernon site would receive $2.6 million for clean-up measures. It would not be abandoned, but put in a trust. With certain conditions, if not met would then open the possibility of abandonment …but the state would receive $26 million. If the bankruptcy court does not approve Exide’s plan, abandonment is likely.

A sampling of the comments includes:

A City of Maywood elected official. “This is a battle that has been going on for decades…poisoning our community, our air and water in Boyle Heights, Maywood, Compton and especially the workers in Vernon. Exide wants the state of California to pay to clean up their mess.”

Cheryl, Los Angeles resident, said she was concern[ed] that the comment period was so short. 

“I do not believe the bankruptcy petition is just for the public,” Cheryl said. “This company operated in the community for decades…and now just walks away.”

Cudahy mayor, Elizabeth Alcantar, opined, “Health and well-being of my community… does nothing for the thousands who have been poisoned by heavy metals. The federal government should be defending us, not the corporate polluters.”

Cynthia, Global Action Committee, said, “They must be held accountable and not pass this cost on to the people.”

Alicia Rivera, Wilmington organizer of the Communities for a Better Environment commented that, “Attorney General Barr is again on the side of disgrace in siding with Exide to go into bankruptcy.” 

Rivera continued, explaining that move leaves community members with the cost of cleaning up the lead, arsenic, and other metals Exide emitted into the soil, air and water in its 33 years of being allowed by Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to operate on a temporary permit, despite being aware of all types of violations like handling hazardous material for which they were not permitted.

Coalition for Clean Air spokesperson, Chris Chavez, stated that “This bankruptcy proposal would allow the company to abandon its site. This is environmental racism. The scope of the contamination is massive–to schools and homes. According to the LA Times, the clean-up costs could be $270 million. If the administration allows this to go through, it is complicit.”

Christina Garcia, Assemblywoman 58th district spoke of impacted community members. 

“The DOJ should reject the proposal and look to criminal prosecution of Exide. They have gone back on their word, their prior agreement to clean-up.”

Rosalie Fernandez, teacher in Boyle heights, said it’s, “unfair that our community is subjected to environmental racism.”

James Wells, an environmental geologist who served as technical advisor to the Exide Community Advisory Group hearing forcefully added: 

“Even after the buildings are removed, this settlement leaves inadequate funds. There are 60-80,000 yards of toxic waste; and groundwater plume under the south yard that has not been cleaned up either. The data is irrefutable that lead found in soils up to ¾ mile from the site, according to their own admission. Data from 8,500 homes and all nearby schools shows that fallout from Exide is the dominant cause of lead contamination. In 30 years of cleaning up contaminated sites, I have never found one that is so bad.”

Elizabeth Álvarez, who lives 1.2 miles away from this polluted site said, “My son was born with deformities, caused by lead poisoning…the same is true for my daughter who suffers from lead poisoning affecting her blood.”

Lena, a UCLA senior, taking classes on environmental justice and living in Southeast Los Angeles said, “they were supposed to clean up — it is kind of shady to leave it this way…we must hold them accountable.”

Dr. Jill Johnson, Keck School of Medicine presented medical evidence, explaining that “Even lead at low levels can cause cognitive deficiencies, it is transferred from soil to children and blood. It poses a threat to workers and residents — especially children. It is being transmitted during pregnancy. We need to prioritize the health of this community.”

One of the environmental inspectors from Sept 2016 through 2017, added “I believe the owners should be facing criminal charges. They have willfully poisoned workers for decades…”

Even South Coast AQMD representatives speaking were all unanimous in saying that this company has a long history of lying, falsely saying they have complied with legal regulations, illegally stored leaking batteries, emit hundreds of tons of poisonous lead, ammonia, cadmium, benzene and arsenic into the air and manipulated data. They are concerned that the Justice Department will abandon its responsibilities. 

Pastor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. “Contamination has been discovered 70 feet deep. Committees on state and federal level which are supposed to protect us, have failed. Why should this company get protection from a federal court?”

A teacher from Inglewood explained that all the government agencies “represent the big businesses, and not working people. The failure of government agencies — EPA, FDA, USDA, FAA, AQMD all have a history of siding with business against workers and the community. Another local example is the AQMD backing of the oil refineries in Torrance and Wilmington- and not the community. Labor has the key role to play. Our unions, starting with the Steelworkers, that organized Exide, and the AFL-CIO need to call a massive, peaceful legal street demonstration. This strategy has proven effective for all prior social struggles…”

Donald LaPlante, Downey Board of Education President added: “Exide has admitted criminal wrongdoing.”

Unfortunately missing from the public comment was the United Steelworkers union, which represented the Exide employees. The open question is the impact of lead and arsenic on their employees. When contacted USW Local 675 officer Dave Campbell said “I have no records of grievances being filed by the former Exide workers against their employer for Health and Safety matters.”

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department website reports  that “Exide’s operations resulted in the release of harmful levels of lead and arsenic into the environment in the communities surrounding Exide’s former Vernon facility. Exposure to high levels of these chemicals increases the risk of cancer, breathing diseases, and learning problems. More than 100,000 people who live, work, and play near and around the former Exide plant may be at risk. 

Exide and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) are responsible for all cleanup activities. However, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) is working with affected communities to make sure the cleanup is successful and responsive to the community’s needs. (sic)”

Random Lengths is waiting for a comment by AQMD member and City Council member Joe Buscaino representing the impacted area, for this article after multiple failed efforts to get a response.

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