L.A. council votes to seek remedies to fund Exide cleanup

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles City Council has approved a motion to seek legal remedies to obtain clean-up funding and accountability from the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, which allegedly polluted thousands of nearby homes with harmful chemicals.

Decades of unabated pollution from the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon has resulted in excessive heavy metal contamination levels in what many are calling a toxic catastrophe in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Southeast Los Angeles where residents have long complained about unexplained health issues consistent with toxic exposure, including cancer and other illnesses,” stated the motion, which was introduced by Councilman Kevin de León.

The Exide plant, which opened in Vernon in 1922, operated for years despite continuing environmental violations. It allegedly released toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic and mercury into more than 10,000 properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon.

What they’ve done to our community is quite frankly criminal and that’s why we’re exhorting our state agencies and [the state Department of Toxic Substances Control] specifically to make sure they provide all the necessary resources, the funding, to make sure that we cleanup all of the properties that have been damaged and the health of our children who live in and around the Boyle Heights community … and other communities adjacent to this facility in Vernon,” de León said before the vote April 6.

In addition to lead-contaminated soil, concerns were raised about the emission of cadmium and other toxic chemicals and the release of battery acid onto roads. Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez spoke before the vote about the disparity communities of color face regarding environmental hazards. She noted that her district in the northeast San Fernando Valley also deals with “a great deal of environmental injustice.”

On Feb. 18, four Los Angeles-area state legislators — Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles; Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens; state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach; and state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles — announced AB 1024, which would provide $540.4 million to fund a cleanup of the polluted homes.

De León’s motion, which passed with 14 yes votes and one absent, requested City Attorney Mike Feuer to engage in legal remedies to hold Exide accountable and obtain adequate cleanup funding from Exide and the state. The city attorney was also requested to ensure that the remediation plans protect all affected areas of the city including schools, parks, public right-of-ways and private properties.

It also directed the Bureau of Sanitation to prepare and submit comments on the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to address the Exide cleanup to include proper closure activities and the deconstruction of the facility, as well as remediation of onsite contaminated soil, groundwater, ancillary buildings.

It would also request the plans to include advanced sampling and testing beyond the impacted area to ensure that all properties potentially affected are properly addressed.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute Exide for violations of hazardous waste law in exchange for safely shutting down the Vernon facility and cleaning up related contamination, including lead found in the soil of surrounding homes.

When Exide closed the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding area. Of that amount, $26 million was meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

State officials issued a formal determination last October that the condition of the site presents an “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare or to the environment.”

Later that month, a bankruptcy court judge approved a settlement agreement allowing Exide to formally abandon the Vernon facility without further liability. Under the agreement, a bond of $11.16 million was issued in connection with liabilities related to the Vernon site.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials expressed outrage over the bankruptcy court’s decision and vowed to continue to fight to hold Exide accountable.

In October, an auditor found that even high-risk properties like child care centers and schools had yet to be cleaned and only about 2,000 residential properties in the area were cleaned.

In the motion, de León expressed frustration that the contamination is not met with the same level of urgency as other public health problems, such as the Porter Ranch gas leak a few years ago.

Boyle Heights and the surrounding communities deserve to know when a full remediation plan will be implemented and the completion dates for cleanup for their homes and public spaces, including full cost estimates so that Governor Newsom and state officials can do the work necessary to expedite a fully funded cleanup plan,” the motion said.