The recent closure of a battery-recycling plant in Vernon promises the reduction of dangerous levels of toxic emissions to neighboring cities. Now members of Resurrection Neighborhood Watch are looking for ways to address the harmful effect the facility has had on their community, which borders Vernon.
They are also considering the impact the closure has had on workers who lost their jobs when the plant was shut down by state regulators.
The group meets at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights and most of its members belong to the parish and live or work in the area. They met on Monday to discuss the recent order by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to suspend operations at Exide Technologies after the agency found that the facility was releasing hazardous airborne emissions and “metal bearing” waste into the soil.
It’s not the first time the group has taken a stand on an environmental issue impacting the East Los Angeles area. They have a long history of advocating for the health and welfare of people living in their community, and many of their targets over the years have been based in Vernon, including a once city-owned power plant. They voiced their concerns over pollution caused by Exide to city officials and government agencies before the closure.
Barrio Planner’s Frank Villalobos on Monday said some of Exide’s displaced workers had contacted Resurrection Church’s Father John Moretta. They blamed the priest and the group for Exide’s closure and the loss of their jobs when oprations at the facility was suspended indefinitely.
Exide released a statement saying they do not know how long their suspension of operations will last, but Villalobos said he estimates it will be at least a full year before the plant reopens its doors.
DTSC’s Deputy Director Jim Marxen told EGP that he does not know what will happen to the employees who worked at the facility. While jobs and wages are very important to the agency, Marken said their priority is keeping workers safe.
Watch member Teresa Marquez, 65, said it is heartbreaking that people were left without a job, but she feels they should be thankful they are healthy enough right now to look for employment elsewhere.
“What about all those [people] who will be affected?” she asked. “How many people are sick and don’t know it.”
Twenty-year-old Keven Duran pointed out that the employees might not see the affects to their health for years to come.
“In the long run, we’re saving their lives,” said Miguel Alfaro, 54.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) had previously cited the facility for exposing Southeast Los Angeles County residents to chemicals and pollutants known to cause cancer. Exide was ordered by the AQMD to notify 110,000 of those residents of their exposure to lead as well as hold public meetings to explain what happened to neighbors and workers in the area. Those meetings are expected to take place sometime later this month.
Marxen told EGP that the risk level from exposure has been reduced since the facility was shut down.
“At this point exposure has stopped,” Marxen said.
Vernon Director of Health and Environmental Control Leonard Grossberg told EGP in a written statement that the one arsenic emission found in March was corrected within three days. The results from new samples taken to determine if any additional corrections are needed are still pending, he said.
As for the reported contamination from the leaking pipe discovered last month, Grossberg told EGP that investigations or remediation would take place some time after the repairs are completed.
“We are waiting to see how Exide will address the leaking pipe that was recently discovered, and how long it will take to fix,” Grossberg said. “We are in the process of talking with Exide as to how they will handle the down time and pending suspension.”
On Monday, Miguel Alfaro said he thinks the Resurrection group should be looking into a complete closure of the plant to avoid further exposure to residents and employees.
“If we don’t do that, they’ll find a way to cheat the system,” he said.
Workers would normally file health and safety complaints with the California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CAL/OSHA), but in Exide’s case, the agency no longer has jurisdiction over the facility since it has been closed down. Exide workers, however, can file claims with the Department of Industrial Relations.
“There are ways an employee can get help if they think there is a problem,” said Marxen.
According to the Department of Labor, the facility has only had three accidents and two complaints filed against it since 2008. The most recent accident was in November, but it had to do with a forklift and an excessive load. In that case Exide paid an $18,000 fine.
CAL/OSHA Spokesman Peter Melton told EGP that the agency would have been able to shut down the facility if it had found the safety of employees to be in danger. He said due to the lack of serious claims filed by employees or issues found during inspections, no action was required by the agency.
According to Melton, CAL/OSHA, which ensures that the public and workers are safe from safety hazards, uses the data from the Department of Labor as a way to keep tabs on worker safety at a facility. The only complaints they observed since 2008 involved a “cleanliness issue” in 2008 and a “low leveled hazard” in 2011, both of which were not considered serious, said Melton.
Since the order to suspend operations at Exide, the publicly traded company has seen a drastic decrease in their stock prices.
“There’s no way to compare their [financial] hurt to the way human beings will be hurt,” said Teresa Marquez.
The neighborhood watch group hopes that whoever is elected Los Angeles’ next mayor will take a stand against companies that continue to pollute their communities. Until then, Villalobos expects Exide to address the community through public hearings, the way the company did in 2006.
“We have to remain vigilant,” Villalobos said. “Six years doesn’t seem like a long time but look at all the people who have passed away.”
EGP’s calls to Exide Technologies for comment were not returned.