Not too far from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, a car battery shaped sign hangs on a storefront on one of the busiest streets in East Los Angeles, proudly announcing the retailer sells Exide batteries.
The Auto Supply Company on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue is less than five miles south of the embattled acid-lead battery recycler, forced to permanently close in March after years of public outcry over its polluting of local communities and threats of criminal prosecution.
Lea este artículo en Español: Continúa la Venta de Baterías de Exide en el Este de Los Ángeles
Yet, Exide’s poor reputation on the Eastside has not translated to a loss in sales, says Ralph Fernandez, the retailer’s general manager.
According to Fernandez, news that the battery recycler had violated toxic emissions regulations, exposing 110,000 eastside residents to cancer-causing emissions, did not hurt the auto supplier’s sale of Exide batteries. Neither did the forced shut down of the plant as part of a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that allowed Exide to avoid criminal prosecution over its illegal mishandling of hazardous waste, says Fernandez.
Unless you consider sales actually increasing.
“There’s just no correlation, people just don’t care unless it affects them directly,” Fernandez said.
He also told EGP, that despite all the negative media fallout, Exide’s parent company has never written to reassure him that the closure would have no impact on their ability to continue to supply him with Exide brand car batteries, one of only three auto batteries still made in the U.S.
All they sent was a letter saying the Vernon plant was closing, Fernandez explained.
Fernandez said he’s confident the batteries will continue to sell at the East L.A. store, despite being a stone throws away from the epicenter of environmental groups condemning the company.
There’s a misconception out there among some that because the Exide plant is contaminated with lead, the company’s car batteries are also contaminated, but that’s simply not true, Fernandez said.
“Lead acid is not in the air during the oxidizing process” when the battery is made, Fernandez explained. It’s only a problem during the recycling process, he said. Exide currently manufactures batteries at its plants in Missouri, Idaho and Kansas.
The store, located in East L.A. since 1969, has been selling Exide batteries for about 15 years. Fernandez said Exide put up the outdoor sign to help the retailer advertise the batteries.
However, the Auto Supply Company is not the only local supplier selling Exide batteries. They can be found at major retailers like Home Depot, and other national and independent auto supply stores and tire shops in southeast and eastside communities.
Consumers find Exide’s “Made in the USA” branding and moderate price attractive. It’s even the official battery for Nascar.
Angel Campos, 44, was at the store Tuesday to purchase car parts. He told EGP he is concerned about a company that does not protect its consumers and contaminates the environment. But when looking to buy a car battery, other priorities come into play.
“I look for a battery with a brand that has a good reputation for making well-performing batteries,” he said in Spanish while standing outside the store.
Fernandez said he thought twice about selling the batteries, but decided to continue selling them since only one customer has ever brought it to his attention.
Nieve Villegas told EGP she doesn’t know what brand of batter her car uses; that’s something she leaves to her husband. “But it surprises me [Exide] would want to sell their products in the community they contaminated,” she said angrily.
In addition to their East L.A. location, the Auto Supply Company has stores in downtown Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens; all three are fairly close to the Vernon plant and other areas known to have been contaminated by recycler.
Fernandez said the store does not plan to reorder Exide batteries when the current inventory sells out. He said the change has nothing to do with the company’s problems in Vernon, but with pricing.
Maria Garcia, 63, is an East L.A. resident and says she doesn’t blame the retailer for selling Exide batteries. She said Exide is solely responsible.
“It’s scary to think that we cannot get away from this company,” Garcia said in Spanish. “The problem is most people just don’t know or care” about these issues.