Exide battery recycling plant leaves a toxic legacy

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March 1, 2016: This post has been updated below to include a response from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Months of public attention and focused government action recently ended the natural gas leak in the upscale development of Porter Ranch. In dramatic and embarrassing contrast, it took a threat of federal criminal action to finally close the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon last year, which had been operating for years without even getting a full permit.

Some 10,000 working-class, mostly Latino households are likely contaminated by lead, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants. Now, Gov. Jerry Brown wants $176 million to start a cleanup that could cost $400 million or more. 

On Olney in LA, Warren Olney talks with County Supervisor Hilda Solis and community organizer Hugo Lujan of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. The group is working to get residents signed up for soil and blood testing. Lujan says they’re “going door to door and informing community residents of East L.A. and Commerce about the impact of lead and about the contamination and also moving to register folks for soil testing,” so they can get the neighborhood cleaned up.

Lujan says residents whose soil tests high for lead will be prioritized for cleanup which involves removing a foot of soil and replacing it. County officials are using what they refer to as rapid fire testing to turn around the results.

“We can get the results within three hours,” says Lujan. “For the actual clean-up for one property it’s three days but 10,000 total homes needed remediation estimated, that can take years.”

For some, the thought of getting rid of beloved plants has been tough. But Lujan says education is the key. “We move forward with explaining to them the importance of removing lead and the impacts of lead on children and elderly in our communities and why it’s so important to get it out, because we don’t want to be contaminated and the health impacts are very high.”

Lujan has personal experience with lead exposure. “My grandmother who lived in East L.A. for more than 20 years … struggles to feed herself because her hands shake a lot. So she went from being able to cook for 150 people to not being able to cook for herself, because of lead exposure.” 

Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the area impacted by the now shuttered Exide Technologies battery plant, asked for $70 million to begin the clean up process. She says she was surprised when Brown set aside $176 million. The governor’s plan is to recoup the money from Exide. But whether that will happen, remains to be seen.

Exide filed for Bankruptcy Court approval to restructure in June 2013. The plant closed in March 2015 as part of an agreement the company made with federal regulators to avoid criminal prosecution. The deal included paying for the full cost of the cleanup.  

Solis says for some people, it’s been a 33-year ordeal. “When The Department of Toxic Substances Control said that they (Exide) had a temporary permit that was in operation for 33 years, that is not temporary. That is neglect and we know that there was much blame to be leveled against Exide for corporate irresponsibility. It’s one the largest environmental justice issues for California,” she says. 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control also happens to be in charge of the cleanup, which Solis says gives her pause. “I think when we begin the cleanup and after some of the dust has settled, so to speak, we really have to find out how this originated. Who allowed this to happen? Why was there so much lack of compliance not just on the DTSC but also AQMD” (Air Quality Management District).

While the county doesn’t have regulatory authority over the site, Solis heard the pleas of her constituents while out in the community. “People told me, Hilda, we need this place closed. We need remediation. We need to help people. I actually got to meet families. A family of six – a woman in her mid 40s,  Mrs. Amalia Vallejo, who gave birth to six children. All of them were born prematurely with asthma. The last child had severe development disabilities and will never be normal. He was born deaf, also has neurological deficiencies. How do you repair that 4-year-old child’s life? You don’t.”

For Solis, the proposed $176 million is just the beginning. However, she sees a discrepancy between what’s happening with the communities near Exide and those in Porter Ranch. 

“It’s unlike what is happening in Porter Ranch, and I call it two Americas. One where you have money, you get immediate help in a matter of time and one where you sit waiting for 33 years because you’re low income, you’re immigrants and your average salary or take-home pay is $32,000 as compared to Porter Ranch which is $100,000 or more,” Solis says.

Lujan says residents are “very upset and very disappointed with the way the state’s handled the situation, which is why they’re so adamant about pushing forward and holding Exide accountable, but also holding DTSC and the state accountable for the lack of oversight and allowing this to happen.”

However, Lujan sees some progress. “Initially Exide only wanted to test three houses and clean up three properties and we were able to push for three blocks and from that able to push for 1.75 miles,” he says. According to Lujan, the total amount might be 10,000 homes in remediation.

County health officials say the health implications of the Exide contamination can’t be cleaned up. Residents were not only exposed to lead, but also to arsenic, benzene and carcinogens. Health officials are developing what they call an “enhanced health screening effort” to help detect chronic illnesses likely caused by exposure to the various chemicals released by Exide.

Below is a response to the story from Sanford Nax at the Office of Communications, Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), California Environmental Protection Agency.

I would like to make some points regarding the Olney in LA broadcast yesterday that was about the Exide Technologies plant closure and cleanup.

Gov. Brown’s proposal  – which the Legislature must still adopt – calls for $176.6 million to ensure all residential properties, schools, daycare centers and parks within 1.7 miles of the Exide facility are sampled and that contaminated soil is removed where lead levels are highest and potential exposure is greatest.  The sampling will dictate how many properties need to be cleaned up. Some number of these homes may require no cleanup. Some may require little cleanup, and costs of cleanup may vary. The plan sets aside funding to clean up about 2,500 of the yards where the contamination is highest and where there is the greatest potential for exposure. Again at this point we do not know what the number of clean ups may be. The testing will tell us.

You should know that DTSC has been sampling and cleaning up properties outside the Exide plant for more than a year. Nearly 200 properties have been cleaned up, 572 properties have been sampled and  616 access agreements have been signed. More than 10,700 tons of potentially contaminated soil has been removed.  Clearly, much has happened. This  is already one of the most ambitious residential lead cleanups of its kind in California

Regarding the temporary permit: The Exide facililty operated under an “ Interim Status” authorization under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations. The facility was fully regulated as if it had a permit, and was subject to all provisions of California and federal hazardous waste laws.  DTSC conducted regular inspections of the facility using the strict provisions and standards required by law.

The company has been under strong oversight. Over the last five years, state officials under the Brown Administration have  taken a number of critical steps to protect the residents around the Exide facility.  The state suspended the plant’s operations in 2013, issued enforcement orders imposing significant mandates on Exide in 2013, 2014 and 2015;  rejected their permit application in February 2015, got $7 million from the Governor’s Office last August to sample and clean up yards in the expanded area – all this was in addition to the $176.6 million proposal on Feb. 17, 2016.  Enforcment also included the  levying of fines totaling approximately $2 million and orders that required Exide to make substantial and costly improvements to its operations to ensure the public was protected. These were significant health-protective steps.

Safely closing the Exide plant  and cleaning up the industrial and residential properties around it is an important project for the Administration. It has  been and will continue to be one of our highest priorities. We are working very closely with the community and elected officials to ensure that all residents around Exide are safe and protected.