Wave Wire Services
LOS ANGELES — City Councilman Kevin de León, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia voiced their support May 17 for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $454.5 million in proposed funding to clean up toxic chemicals that leaked into more than 10,000 properties from the Exide Technologies battery recycling plan in Vernon.
Newsom unveiled the added money May 14 as part of an $11 billion plan to fight climate change and fund clean air and water projects across the state.
The $454.5 million would go toward cleaning the properties, parkways, parks and public right-of-ways polluted by the Exide plant, which opened in Vernon in 1922 and operated for years despite continuing environmental violations.
The plant, which closed in 2015, 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.
“This is good news because we started here six years ago … and we raised our voice collectively with many neighbors in and around this community … that this corporation in Vernon continued to pollute our communities,” de León said.
De León, who has previously called the Exide plant’s pollution a “toxic catastrophe,” said that it was Los Angeles’ own Flint, Michigan — referring to a period from 2014-19 when drinking water in Flint was contaminated by lead and possibly other toxins.
“You don’t have to go to the Midwest to find lead poisoning and contamination, it is in our very own backyard,” he said.
In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $176.6 million to expedite and expand the testing and cleanup of homes, schools and parks near Exide. The funding was expected to begin the process but not finish the work. Last 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 February, Santiago, Garcia and two other Los Angeles-area state legislators — state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, and state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles — introduced a bill to provide $540 million to fund the cleanup of 10,000 residential properties contaminated by Exide.
“We began the year by fighting for AB 1024 that would fund $550 million to cleanup our neighborhoods,” Santiago said. “Folks have been waiting for nearly four decades and today we’re here to celebrate the success of our hard work at the beginning of the year, when we now have ($454.5 million) in this year’s budget, and that goes a long way to cleaning up our neighborhoods,” said Santiago, who represents most of the area in the Assembly.
He added that despite the funding, there is still more work to be done, as “we’re still feeling the effects of the Trump administration allowing Exide to walk away … and owe basically zero dollars to our community.”
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.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control 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, Newsom and other officials expressed outrage over the bankruptcy court’s decision and vowed to continue to fight to hold Exide accountable.
Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the funding, but noted that the budget still needed to get passed.
On April 6, the Los Angeles City Council approved a motion introduced by de León to seek legal remedies to obtain clean-up funding and accountability from Exide.
The motion asked City Attorney Mike Feuer to obtain adequate cleanup funding from Exide and the state, and 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 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 and ancillary buildings.
It also would request the plans to include advanced sampling and testing beyond the impacted area to ensure that all properties potentially affected are properly addressed.
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.