By Chris Richard
State-ordered testing of soil for lead and other toxins around a battery recycling plant in Vernon, just east of downtown Los Angeles, is underway. The plant, Exide Technologies, already has been accused of endangering the lives of 110,000 people who live nearby.
But neighborhood residents and community leaders say they’re skeptical that the test results will force Exide’s factory to close before it can do any more harm.
“I think it’s great that they’re testing, and I’d say that it’s long overdue,” said Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood about a mile from the plant. He says that members of his congregation have long been worried about emissions from the plant.
“But this is all pretty superficial. It doesn’t get to the real question, which is, at what point do you wait for them to go into more violations before you shut them down?”
California regulation ensures the safe treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste, and requires that factories such as battery recyclers satisfy rigorous environmental reviews before obtaining a permit. But Exide has never met that standard.
Long history of citations
The plant has a long history of air pollution write-ups, including allegations that it allowed lead dust to contaminate the surrounding neighborhood, regulators say. Still, state officials allowed the factory, which melts tens of thousands of batteries a day, to operate on “interim status” for some 30 years.
In April, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control took action and ordered Exide to suspend operations. Regulators said arsenic emissions from the plant endangered as many as 110,000 who live in Boyle Heights and other nearby neighborhoods. The South Coast Air Quality Management District estimated cancer risk from the airborne arsenic at up to 15 times state standards.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control also found that contaminants had seeped into the ground from corroded pipes at up to 63 times the levels allowed under state law.
But Exide appealed the suspension. In court filings, Exide said it has reduced its arsenic emissions by 70 percent since 2010. Company attorneys argued that regulators were bowing to public outrage and acting arbitrarily. In mid-June, Los Angeles County Judge Luis Lavin ordered the plant reopened.
Lavin said that keeping the factory closed wouldn’t improve neighborhood health conditions immediately and would cause irreparable harm to the company. He affirmed that ruling two weeks later, pending an administrative law hearing.
That hearing was to resume Tuesday, but DTSC requested a postponement because Exide agreed to address the leaking pipes and airborne emissions identified in the agency’s suspension order.
“We are obligated to articulate, and have discussed with (Exide) ... what actions would have to occur at the facility in order to correct the unacceptable conditions,” agency spokesman Russ Edmondson wrote in an email Tuesday.
“If and when Exide demonstrates that it can satisfy these requirements, DTSC will have achieved its goal in ensuring that the facility operates safely and would consider lifting the suspension.”
He said the faulty pipes are now out of service and Exide has installed a temporary drainage system. A permanent drainage system is in the planning stage.
Neighborhood resident Cristal Rivera said she has lost confidence that state regulators will protect her, her husband or their 8-month-old son, Julian.
“The things they want Exide to do are good, but they don’t seem to have much power,” she said.
Factory operated despite damaged system to filter toxic emissions
On July 7, just five days after Judge Lavin’s ruling to reopen the plant, Exide reported that heat had damaged air filtration devices in one of two “baghouses” that are supposed to scrub out toxic emissions. Even though its air filtration system was compromised, the factory continued to operate, South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman Sam Atwood said.
He said Exide temporarily shut down portions of the factory that vented to the baghouses but resumed operations the next day, triggering a citation from the Air Quality Management District on July 9. After that, the company closed down operations until the filtration system was repaired, a district report shows.
The district had ordered additional remediation measures and set a deadline of Sept. 1 for Exide to report what new steps it was taking to safeguard the public from its toxic emissions.
But in an interview last week, Atwood said no such report had been received.
“I think their response is going to be, ‘Our plan is what we’ve already done,’ ” Atwood said.
The company has installed an automatic door between a storage bin for dismantled batteries and blast furnaces where it melts them, he said. Formerly, the furnaces could freely vent gases into the air through the entrance to the storage bin. Now the automatic gate keeps that passageway closed part of the time.
“Then the question becomes, ‘Where’s the proof that this has accomplished the risk reduction?’ ” Atwood said.
Exide spokeswoman Susan Jaramillo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Rivera, the young mother, said she can’t afford to wait. She said she and her husband have decided to sell their house and move to a safer area.
“There will be gases that stay in that room with the furnace,” she said. “When they open that gate, they’re going to come out.”
In the neighboring community of Bell, City Councilman Nestor Enrique Valencia, a founder of the health activist group Our Salud, said he’s skeptical of government efforts. He admits that’s partly due to his experience of government in his own city, which was shaken by a political corruption scandal in 2010 and 2011. (Valencia was not implicated in the scandal and won his council seat in 2011.)
“After all that, I’m not going to sit there and listen to a bunch of bureaucrats. I’m just very leery, if not skeptical, of (state agencies’) work,” he said. “I know they’re trying, but I don’t see them being very successful in closing this plant down.”
Valencia said a private lab has tested the blood-lead levels of some 15 people living in the area, and additional testing is scheduled. He has asked local school officials for permission to meet with parents on campus and urge them to have their children tested.
David Campbell, a spokesman for unionized plant workers, said federally mandated blood tests among employees did not find elevated lead levels. He said he supports additional soil testing and blood testing for the wider community.
Edmondson said dust testing is beginning within 500 feet of the Exide plant, progressing in 1,500-foot concentric circles. Samples are drawn from stormwater curb boxes and open drainage channels, the Los Angeles River channel, sidewalks, and the roofs and grounds of neighboring facilities.
Test results will be available in early December, Edmondson said. If they show contamination, the department will conduct additional testing in a broader area, he said.
Meanwhile, at the Resurrection Catholic School, which is affiliated with Moretta’s parish, principal Angelica Figueroa said faculty members have been encouraging children to participate in public meetings and other political processes that can influence regulators to increase their oversight of companies like Exide.
The school is about a mile and a half from Exide.
“These companies would not go to the Westside or Pasadena or any other more affluent area,” she said. “Why? Because people there will step up and voice their concerns. Well, I want our students to know that they have that same right.”