Exide’s Latest Trouble Is Good News to Locals
A federal grand jury has subpoenaed company documents.
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
A festive ‘convivio,’ or small gathering was held Monday at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, a venue where residents normally voice their concerns over community affairs and ongoing anger directed at Vernon-based Exide Technologies.
But this week the mood was different. It was celebratory, victorious.
There was pizza and cake.
The members of the Resurrection Neighborhood Watch group were celebrating news of the most recent legal troubles facing the controversial acid-lead battery smelting and recycling plant, which they believe has put their families’, friends’ and neighbors’ health at risk.
“This is a preview of the real party,” said Monsignor John Moretta, referring to the large celebration that would likely take place if Exide is forced to close permanently.
Multiple agencies have been targeting the battery maker and recycler over its repeated air emission violations and last week Exide’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that a federal grand jury is investigating the plant for possible criminal charges.
The grand jury subpoena is demanding “documents relating to materials transportation and air emissions.” Los Angeles federal prosecutors are behind the investigation that is targeting Exide and some “unidentified individuals,” according to the filings.
Officials for the company said it would cooperate with the investigation but “cannot estimate the amount of range of loss, if any” would be caused by the federal investigation, according to the filings.
Exide filed for bankruptcy protection in June 2013 to give the company room to restructure its debt. Rumors of a possible bankruptcy in April prompted a large stock sell-off, but the company’s stock had already been in steady decline since its high in 2011 due to rising production costs, liquidity issues and loss of market share for its Exide and North Star acid-lead batteries to Johnson Controls Inc. Several securities-related class action lawsuits have been filed against Exide by investors alleging the company failed to disclose the information related to its arsenic and lead emission problems and impending bankruptcy.
News of the investigation is exactly what Moretta and local environmental justice groups have been waiting to hear since it was revealed last year that up to 110,000 east and southeast area residents and workers were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.
“Once you have the feds on you, that’s the highest you can get,” said Moretta. “To me that means they are in high pursuit.”
The latest grand jury investigation comes on the heels of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ letter to Gov. Brown urging him to order the clean up of contaminated soil around homes near the plant.
A toxic threat strike team established by the county has identified 39 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood where elevated levels of lead were found in backyards. The Department of Toxic Substance Control ordered Exide to cleanup just two properties where soil samplings revealed higher than desired lead levels.
In response, Supervisor Gloria Molina’s accused DTSC of being a “roadblock” to environmental justice in the local communities, citing the agency’s “failure” to order a clean up of all 39 sites.
DTSC officials however, told EGP via email that the agency has had frequent communication with the county and has “clearly told them that [DTSC is] committed to sample the soil at those 39 homes and to cleanup the properties if warranted.”
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that state regulators are planning to expand testing to 144 homes in a 2-square-mile area north and south of the plant, including parts of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park and unincorporated East Los Angeles.
At Monday’s meeting, City of Bell Mayor Nestor Valencia said he would like to see the test area expanded even further to include more southeast communities, including Bell, his hometown.
But for Valencia and many of the Boyle Heights residents, testing and cleanup alone will never be enough.
“It’s not over until Exide leaves this community,” Valencia said.
“In the long run closure is better for the community,” echoed Moretta.
For residents like Miguel Alfaro, the latest news signals the beginning of the end for the Vernon facility.
“This the tip of the iceberg, more is to come,” said Moretta, anticipating more legal troubles for Exide.
The plant, which recycles about 25,000 batteries daily at 2700 S. Indiana St., has been closed since mid-March while the company works to reduce air emissions in order to meet state and local requirements. The plant was temporarily closed last year due to arsenic emission violations and recently sued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District over alleged air quality violations. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the plant violated federal limits on lead emissions on more than 30 occasions between September and April.
“You’ve been in this a long time,” Moretta told the residents. “The tide is finally rising in our favor.”
Information from City News Service was used in this report.
August 21, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.