Exide Technologies this week wrapped up a series of community meetings aimed at informing the public about the possible health risks they face as a result of their exposure to toxic emissions, including arsenic, from the battery recycling plant in Vernon.
The company was also in court this week, appealing an order from the state Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) to shut down the facility because hazardous waste and emissions are contaminating the soil and air, posing an “unacceptable” health risk to the public.
Local residents, elected officials and environmentalists are among the angry voices asking for a major overhaul before the plant is allowed to reopen. Some people living in the impacted areas are calling for the plant to be permanently shut down.
The one chorus of voices that stands in support of Exide’s reopening is the plant’s approximately 120 unionized workers and their families, many who also live in the area.
While Vernon only has about 100 residents, over 50,000 people go to the city each day to work. They come from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and the neighboring cities of Huntington Park and Maywood, all areas that are predominately Latino and working-class. And while meetings were scheduled to take place in Huntington Park, Commerce, Boyle Heights and Vernon, no meetings were scheduled for Maywood, where residents and local officials have long contended that toxic waste emanating from Vernon has polluted their water supply.
Maywood Councilman Felipe Aguirre said his city requested that one of the public meetings be held there, but when that did not happen, Maywood residents flocked to the meetings in Huntington Park.
“Maywood is the closest group of people living next to the plant,” Aguirre told EGP. “In reality, I think Exide was probably scared to come to Maywood. They won’t be met with open arms, there are a lot of people in this community who are very sick.”
Exposure to arsenic can cause lung, liver, kidney, bladder and skin cancer if inhaled. Non-cancer risks include chronic and acute harm to child development, as well as cardiovascular, nervous system, respiratory and skin damage, explained AQMD presenters during one of three meetings held last Saturday in Commerce.
Maywood has had issues with their water for years. Harmful trace chemicals have made water look Tamarindo-colored (brown), Aguirre told EGP.
He said Exide is putting “band aids on” on antiquated machinery; “jerry-rigging” and doing “mickey mouse fixes” instead of a major overhaul to ensure the community will not be exposed to further emissions. He said Exide should follow the example of QUEMETCO, a lead-battery recycling plan located in the City of Industry that installed the Wet Electrostatic Precipitator, or WESP, a system that effectively lowered emissions of lead, arsenic and other pollutants.
Aguirre said the Exide plant should not reopen until it has a new filtration system in place. “We are not guinea pigs,” said Aguirre, who distrusts claims that the plant should be allowed to reopen so they can “fix the mess.”
East Yards for Community Justice headquartered in the City of Commerce told EGP they would not be opposed to Exide closing its doors permanently.
“The operations at Exide Technologies have caused the surrounding communities detrimental environmental health impacts,” the group told EGP in a written statement. They said they are extremely concerned that the company has been operating without “the best available pollution controls,’ and added that they will continue to monitor the situation and are ready to provide technical assistance if needed.
“We believe that the health risks that this site poses to the community are much greater than the benefits,” East Yards told EGP.
Joseph K. Lyou with the Coalition for Clean Air and an appointee of the governor to the AQMD governing board said Exide has the right to challenge DTSC’s order to cease operations.
“It’s my understanding that they can go to court or they could ask the judge to reverse the decision. On the DTSC end, its unclear how it will play out,” he said.
South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD, or AQMD), which manages air pollution in Orange County, and portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, in March ordered Exide to immediately reduce arsenic emissions and ordered the company to hold a public meeting informing the public about potential health risks from the harmful emissions. The company was previously cited for excessive lead emissions, but has been in compliance since January 2012, according to the AQMD presentation.
According to the AQMD, while Exide was only required to hold one public meeting, they were holding 8 meetings, three each in Huntington Park and Commerce, and one in both Boyle Heights and Vernon.
AQMD Media Relations Manager Sam Atwood said the number of meetings was unprecedented. “We knew we needed to have more than one because of the number of people affected,” he told EGP.
Philip M. Fine, AQMD Asst. Deputy Executive Officer, told EGP it was the “largest notification” ever done by the agency, and included “over 100,000 addresses.” He said there are 31 schools in the impacted area, and each school received a package with the health risk assessment results that were to be sent home with students. Fine said the meeting notices and health risk assessments were also distributed at public libraries.
The only school in Vernon, however, was never notified about the public meetings taking place, Vernon Elementary School Principal Fabiola Hernandez told EGP. A majority of the students at the school attend by permit, because their parents work in Vernon, according to Hernandez. But because the school is two miles from the plant, the AQMD does not consider it to be within the high-risk area, where 10 in1 million residents could develop cancer.
“Those schools that were not notified, had no risk associated,” Atwood said.
Commerce officials invited Exide to hold a public meeting in city facilities, but the company instead opted for the Doubletree Hotel on Saturday, City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP.
Joseph, an eighteen-year-old Commerce resident, attended the 11 a.m. public meeting at the hotel where he blamed Exide for his health issues.
“I have been exposed to these chemicals, and let me tell you I’m sick, no, I’m really sick,” he said. “I wake up with a throat full of blood, I get bloody noses and I probably have cancer, but I’m not sure of that…”
While he expressed some sympathy for laid off workers, the same could not be said for their corporate employer: “These people don’t care. All they care about is if they have money in their bank accounts so they can pay off their fat homes and spend all the money on needless things and personal gain,” Joseph said. “You people on the board should be ashamed for harming people knowingly and not doing anything about it.”
Commerce Mayor Joe Aguilar told EGP he was surprised more people did not turn out for the meetings. About 15 of the people at the 11 a.m. meeting wore T-shirts that identified them as United Steelworkers Local 675 members.
Martin Sanchez, a mechanic at the plant, defended Exide. He pointed out that some homes have lead contamination from old paint and that air pollution also comes from cars and other industrial activities.
“Even the sun can cause cancer, are they going to blame the company? I got a family too… We’re all healthy; we don’t have cancer. Stop blaming it on the company,” Sanchez said.
AQMD Executive Officer Barry R. Wallerstein, however, responded to Sanchez saying the risk discussion was specific to Exide. He said health risks are from calculations based on sampling the air relative to this particular facility.
“…The facility engineers, the scientist and their consultants and the AQMD scientists all agree that the emissions measured result in this risk,” he said, adding it is about protecting the public. “And in doing that, I believe there will also be improvements for the workers,” Wallerstein said.
AQMD is rquiring Exide to submit a Health Risk Reduction Plan before Sept. 1st. Exide is said to be installing a special door over a furnace to better filter the gasses and a secondary HEPA filtration system, as well as modifying an exiting HEPA filtration unit.
AQMD will also consider additional requirements such as regulations or permit conditions; the company has been operating on an interim permit for 35 years.
Secretary-Treasurer of United Steel Workers Local 675, David Campbell, said he agrees with “everything” Wallerstein said, “largely because according to the environmental regulations in California this plant is the most technologically advanced plant Exide has.”
He said they are willing to commit to the community that if Exide is allowed to reopen, they will “offer free health and safety and environmental training from our international union’s health and safety department, with simultaneous translation in Spanish.”
Plant Manager John Hogart has only been with Exide for four month but has worked for over 16 years with aluminum and steel companies in Vernon. He said he is hopeful the plant would reopen and resume operations.
“We work very closely with the AQMD, they are the air monitoring agency for the basin and we meet their requirements. We think we do a good service to our community, to the country; we recycle spent lead acid batteries…” Hogart told EGP Exide follows regulatory agency guidelines.
He would or could not respond to specific questions like why the company has been operating on an interim permit for 30 years, citing his short time with the company and the Exide’s pending appeal.
One resident, who noted he missed much of the presentation, expressed a sense of futility, which for many seemed to be the elephant in the room.
“Is there a place where we can vote and have our opinion count, whether or not we want to allow the potential risks to continue?” he asked AQMD officials, who responded by saying that by speaking up at the public meeting he is making his voice count.
Commerce’s Aguilar noted that about 10 years ago a business in Commerce left the ground contaminated, but generally the city works closely with AQMD to ensure companies there are in compliance.
He said it’s not an issue of each city regulating, and thinks “AQMD is doing the job they are supposed to, but there are too many companies and “people are short-handed, and there may be one or two that slip through the cracks,” he said.
Commerce’s city administrator said the city council took action in April by writing a letter to the City of Vernon urging them to take all actions available to them as s a charter city to ensure the company ceases operations until it demonstrates clearly that it is not endangering the health and safety of the people who live and work within the Southeast region.
Rifa also said AQMD made a presentation at a recent meeting on the health hazards that was televised on the city’s cable channel.
Vernon’s response to Commerce, a letter signed by Mayor Michael McCormick, noted that Vernon and its Health and Environmental Control Department (VHECD) do not have authority to regulate Exide for air emissions and toxic substances, but safety is a top priority for the 55,000 workers that come to the city every day.
The letter also indicates the city, which found out about the arsenic contamination through newspaper reports, was also alarmed and asked AQMD to issue a health advisory.
Following Vernon’s Council meeting on Tuesday, only Councilman Michael A Ybarra, a parent and grandparent of children born and raised in the city’s limits, said he was very concerned about the health risks.
Ybarra said he hopes Exide can meet all the regulatory standards again and receive a permanent permit. “We need the business,” he said. “Battery recycling needs to be processed correctly, but it needs to be done right.”
Rifa pointed out that Exide is a major corporation, that’s publicly traded and has locations in 80 countries: “This is not a flyby night operation. You would expect, given the nature of their operations there is a very strict philosophy about managing that plant and any of their plants,” Rifa said.
“If they are operating in a way that disregards the community’s safety and health that’s shameful and if they cannot operate in a way that is responsible to our community and their workers, they should not be operating,” Rifa said.
When asked, the Coalition for Clean Air’s Lyou agreed it’s ironic that recycling is supposed to be good for the environment, but in this case the battery recycling poses a health risk to the public.
“Recycling is supposed to be a good thing. Reusing the lead, there’s obviously a need to do this. We’re recycling batteries for our cars and boats. However, when the recycling is done in a away that puts people at risk for cancer, we need to make sure that people are protected,” Lyou said.
The outcome of Exide’s administrative hearing on the DTSC action was unclear as of time of publication.
Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer contributed to this story.