A state agency ordered a Vernon battery recycler Wednesday to halt work, saying that hazardous waste and emissions are seeping into the soil and air, posing a public health risk.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control alleges “metal bearing” waste is leaking from underground pipes at Exide Technologies, 2700 S. Indiana St., and the continued operation of the plant is unsafe.
Exide was served with an order to suspend operations because of “significant ongoing releases to the environment” and “unacceptable” health risk from airborne emissions to the community and workers, said the agency’s director, Deborah Raphael, during a conference call with the media Wednesday morning.
In March, the South Coast Air Quality Management District cited the facility for releasing arsenic into the air. Exide was ordered to immediately reduce its dangerous levels of arsenic emissions and to notify 110,000 residents in Southeast Los Angeles County of their exposure to chemicals and pollutants known to cause cancer.
“We made a determination that this facility poses an imminent and substantial danger to public health, worker safety and the environment,” Raphael said.
The plant recycles 22 million automotive batteries a year and has been operating in Vernon since the 1920s. Exide, a publicly traded company with operations in 80 countries, took it over about 10 years ago.
A representative at the facility declined to comment, and an Exide spokesperson was not immediately available.
The latest order by DTSC was hailed by local elected officials whose constituents have complained for years of health and environmental issues related to the Exide plant.
State Assembly Speaker John Perez called the order a “major victory for the residents and workers” in the southeast area. His district includes Vernon and other southeast cities.
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar also lauded the suspension, but added he was unsatisfied with the toxic control agency’s handling of Exide’s permitting process over the years.
“I do question why the company was allowed to operate with an interim permit,” said Huizar, who represents neighborhoods bordering Vernon.
“Boyle Heights, East L.A. and our Southeast Communities already bear more than their fair share of harmful emissions and contaminants,” he said.
The battery recycling plant has been operating under a temporary DTSC permit for the past 32 years and is the only facility left in the state that has not been fully permitted, the agency’s spokesman Jim Marxen told City News Service.
He could not explain why the agency initially did not complete the permitting process on the plant, but said the facility has operated since the 1920s and has a “complex” set of issues that were not faced by other facilities required to obtain permits under a 1981 federal hazardous materials
An effort was made in 2002 to bring the plant up to standard so that it could qualify for a full permit, but that process was stalled in 2006, he said, adding there were extensive public hearings held at the time.
A renewed effort was made to get the company into compliance in 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Debbie Raphael as the new DTSC director, he said.
“She came in and she began asking, ‘Why isn’t this permitting process moving? What’s the problem with it?”’ he said.
The latest order to shut down the battery plant came as the permitting process started up again, but “it just got to a point where problems were at a level where it was an unacceptable risk” for the company to continue operating, Marxen said.
Perez also sent a letter to the toxic control agency earlier this month, urging a “rapid resolution” to arsenic emissions and calling it “one more chapter in this terrible story of ongoing pollution and malfeasance.”
Perez called for fixing “all past and present contamination” with Exide paying for the cost of the cleanup and “immediate action” on finalizing the facility’s permit “so that we can start anew … with the most rigorous standards and protections for the neighborhoods and workers in place.”
A Los Angeles City Council committee headed by Huizar is considering legal action against Exide over the arsenic allegations. The AQMD estimated the airborne arsenic could affect about 110,000 people.
Boyle Heights resident Sal Martinez told EGP he is elated about the closure. Martinez said he and his fellow parishioners at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights had “had enough,” and were in the process of organizing protest marches to demand something be done about Exide’s continued “polluting of their neighborhood.”
“We wanted their permit revoked immediately and we were prepared to march against them just like we did against the [failed proposal to build a] power plant in Vernon,” he told EGP.
The politicians “heard our voice and acted immediately” to bring about this decision, Martinez said, adding members of Resurrection Parish had been contacting local officials, “Huizar, Perez, City Attorney Trutanich, anyone we could get to listen,” to urge them to shut the plant down.
Officials in the mostly-industrial city of Vernon said they agreed with DTSC’s decision to shut down the plant.
Vernon’s health and environmental control officials will “closely monitor the work of state DTSC inspectors to ensure that workers at Exide Technologies and the environment surrounding the plant are made completely safe before the facility is cleared to resume operation,” City Administrator Mark Whitworth said in a statement Wednesday.
Whitworth said the city asked AQMD in March to issue a health advisory, adding they did it “because our top priority is the health and safety” of Vernon’s 100 or so residents and the 55,000 people who work at businesses in the city.
A study released Monday by the California Environmental Protection Agency revealed that Vernon is home to the fourth most polluted zip code in the state, and the most polluted area in Southern California. Neighboring communities, including Baldwin Park and East Los Angeles, joined the industrial city on the list, ranking seventh and eight, respectively.
Vernon Spokesman Fred MacFarlane told EGP that although air quality conditions have improved in the city, more work is needed to improve air quality in the Southeast communities that are surrounded by a “collection of freeways.”
“The biggest factor is not the industry in Vernon as much as it is the mobile-source pollution,” he said.
MacFarlane told EGP that the temporary loss in wages by the workers at the facility is “problematic,” however, the city’s priority is the public’s health and safety.
Martinez, meanwhile told EGP that a group of residents from Boyle Heights were preparing to rally in front of Exide, “or somewhere close to there” Wednesday evening.
“We have been waiting a long for this,” he said.
EGP Staff writer Nancy Martinez & CNS reporter Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou contributed to this story.