A decision by state air quality regulators that could allow a controversial acid-lead battery recycling plant in Vernon to reopen by the end of the year is being met with anger by people living near the facility.
At a community meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights Monday, residents said they are less than thrilled with the agreement they claim will allow Exide Technologies another chance to stay in business, despite years of violating toxic chemical emission standards.
Exide has agreed to the terms of two orders of abatement that will require the facility to improve air pollution controls at the site, prompting the decision from the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s (SCAQMD) quasi-independent Hearing Board to allow the company to resume operations once it has complied with the orders. Failure to live up to the terms could lead to the plant’s permanent closure.
“I’m disappointed that they were able to come up with an agreement, but I’m not surprised,” said eastside coalition activist Doelorez Mejia, calling the decision a “plea bargain.”
According to the agreement, Exide will be required to make “substantial” improvements to its Vernon-based facility and to pass comprehensive emission tests before it can resume operations.
Exide has also agreed to drop its lawsuit challenging the AQMD’s new rule setting tougher toxic chemical emission standards, which the company claimed would be impossible to meet. The SCAQMD, however, has retained its right to continue a lawsuit seeking $40 million in penalties for Exide’s numerous violations of air pollution standards, including illegal levels of lead and arsenic known to cause cancer, neurological disorders and learning disabilities in children.
“These orders will put in place additional measures to protect public health during facility improvements as well as daily operations – if the plant ever reopens,” said SCAQMD’s executive officer Barry Wallerstein about the Hearing Board’s decision.
In March, Exide suspended operations to make upgrades to the facility to comply with the agency’s new rule, which if met could allow them tp reopen as soon as the end of this year or early next year, according to SCAQMD.
That possibility does not sit well with Huntington Park Vice Mayor Karina Macias.
“The community has given [Exide] so many chances to fully comply,” she said. It makes no sense “for them to just get another chance.”
“These government agencies are not supposed to negotiate, they are supposed to protect the community,” echoed Boyle Heights resident Teresa Marquez.
Exide has been under extreme scrutiny by state agencies, elected officials and community groups fighting the company on multiple fronts, many hoping to force a permanent closure of the company.
A 2013 health risk assessment found that emissions from Exide were a health risk to nearby residents in Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce, Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles. Higher than normal levels of lead were most recently found in soil samples taken from the backyards of homes and at parks near the plant.
Exide has continuously claimed it has significantly reduced arsenic and lead emissions. The new deal will require them to conduct a new health risk assessment when their upgrades are complete.
Exide has also agreed to pay a third-party environmental consultant to monitor the plant’s emissions of lead and other toxic contaminants and to provide weekly status reports to the Hearing Board, SCAQMD and Exide to determine if they are meeting state emission standards. The reports will also be available to the public on AQMD’s website.
Exide says this is the first step toward returning the facility back to full production.
“Exide is committed to meeting the new air quality standards,” said Thomas Strang, Exide Vice President of Environment Health & Safety. “Completing this [improvement] plan will enhance the environmental performance of our Vernon facility and allow us to resume our role as part of California’s green economy,” Strang said.
Sen. Kevin De Leon, who represents Boyle Heights, told EGP the plant should not resume operations if it can’t operate safely. He called the abatement order “very promising, and necessary for the public health needs of our community.”
At Monday’s meeting, however, Rev. John Moretta told EGP that the battery-recycler should have made these improvements years ago.
“For years they said they couldn’t make the improvements and now all of a sudden they are doing it when they see there’s a possibility of a closure.”
Other Boyle Heights residents expressed feelings of disappointment and defeat over regulator’s decision not to permanently shutter the facility.
“Unless you’re going to use a hammer to close them down, it is just words,” said Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners about the agreement.
“How many chances and hope will [AQMD] give Exide,” Miguel Alfaro demanded to know. “Where do we stand? They don’t give us hope.”
But for some residents, all hope is not lost.
California’s Department of Toxic and Substance Control (DTSC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could still give them what they want.
Exide, which recycles eight million lead-batteries a year, has been operating on a temporary permit for 32 years, a point that has outraged the community and local officials.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, who represents communities near Exide, prohibits companies like Exide from operating for an extended period on a temporary or interim permit. Exide could be shut down if not fully permitted by 2015.
Last month, DTSC denied Exide’s request for a permanent operating permit on grounds that its application did not, among other things, sufficiently detail how the company would remove and pay for lead-waste at the site if it were to close.
Exide’s deadline to resubmit its application was set for today, but DTSC’s Public Information Officer Sandy Nax told EGP Wednesday that the company has requested an extension, which the agency is reviewing.
“No community should suffer all these years of violation after violation, after violation,” Moretta said. “They should have been shut down years ago. We’re paying for it now with the health of the people.”
Mistrust of Exide in the community is widespread, and many, like Marquez, feel Exide has not taken responsibility for its actions by removing the toxic lead found in homes and soil.
“This company has never done anything but run” from its obligations, said Marquez. She said the company’s filing for bankruptcy was just another way to avoid paying the community for the damage they have caused.
“We want to see where the $40 million [lawsuit] will go and whether it will actually go to the community,” echoed Moretta.
Boyle Heights residents also hope the EPA, which last month announced Exide had violated federal lead emissions 30 times in the last year, will launch its own investigation.
The federal agency has acknowledged that the “illegal amount of lead in the air put the health and wellbeing of nearby residents at risks.”
“For the first time I felt like we had a chance to close down Exide … finally someone said what we want to hear,” said Boyle Heights resident Aurora Banuelos.
For its part, Exide has said it will spend more than $5 million on additional upgrades to the Indiana facility over the next two years. Since 2010, Exide has committed $20 million to improvements and remediation, including paying for people living or working near the Vernon facility to get free blood tests for lead.
Mejia told EGP she wants to see a complete clean up of the community before any further agreements are made and she hopes one of the other regulatory agencies will ultimately close down the plant. “I just don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” Mejia said cautiously.
While disappointed by SCAQMD’s decision, Moretta says the issue is not dead since Exide stills has to overcome a number of obstacles, including getting its operating permit.
“The momentum is on our side,” Moretta said.