When news broke last summer that a grand jury was investigating Exide Technologies, community activists celebrated with cake and pizza at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.
Last weekend, following the announcement that the U.S. Attorney had reached an agreement to close down the plant permanently, they were back at the Church, this time celebrating with tequila and champagne.
Over 200 people were on hand to exalt the closure of the embattled acid-lead battery recycling plant in nearby Vernon.
The agreement calls for the immediate, permanent closure of Exide’s plant and for the company to spend millions to clean up the facility and nearby properties polluted by its toxic emissions. In exchange, the company and its executives will avoid criminal prosecution for its admitted decades long illegal handling of hazardous waste.
The mood Saturday was cheerful, food was plentiful and everyone, from the elected officials to the community activists and local residents, was smiling ear to ear on the “historic night.”
“Let’s continue the struggle, but tonight we celebrate,” Rev. Monsignor John Moretta told the crowd, drawing loud applause.
Last Thursday – the day the news broke – the regular bi-weekly meeting of environmental justice advocates East Yard Communities and Communities for a Better Environment to discuss the ongoing struggle with Exide, was replaced with music, hot dogs and dancing.
Modesta Carranza hosted the event in East Los Angeles and called the festivity a “celebration among neighbors,” with neighbors coming from Huntington Park, Maywood, Boyle Heights and beyond.
“In the long struggle for the civil rights of the Chicano/Latino community, it’s hard getting a victory,” so we have to celebrate them when they come, said Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council President Carlos Montes during the event.
Credit for the hard-fought victory belongs to the community, people at both events said.
“Money was against us but we did it with people power,” said 78-year-old Arturo Herrera. “We’ve been fighting for so long,” and now we know “what justice means.”
If you live in a low-income, immigrant community it’s harder to get government to listen to you, said East L.A. resident Victoria Zepeda.
“It takes many hands to make a masa (dough),” said Moretta before naming all the organizations that helped raise awareness of the environmental injustice.
Mark Lopez from East Yard Communities celebrated with his mother and daughter in East L.A. and reflected on how many generations were forced to endure Exide’s toxic emissions before action was finally taken.
“I never thought I would see the day,” echoed his mother Elsa Lopez, whose fight to close the plant goes back decades with the Mothers of East L.A.
Behind all the celebrations and feelings of victory, however, there remains nagging doubt, state regulators are up to the task of forcing Exide to live up to its agreement with federal authorities.
There is also anger that no one will be criminally prosecuted for releasing lead, arsenic and other toxins into the air and groundwater, exposing over 100,000 people to cancer causing levels of toxic chemicals.
It’s hard to forget how long it’s taken elected officials and regulators to act, said many of the people involved in the anti-Exide movement.
“Nobody believed how bad it was,” said Boyle Heights resident Teresa Marquez. They did not believe this could be going on in a state with so many environmental protection laws, she said. But Marquez never believed claims by Exide and state officials that the company was not a danger to the community.
“We knew Exide would lie, but DTSC and AQMD? We wanted to trust them,” she angrily recalls.
Terry Cano was not sure how to feel when she heard Exide was being forced to close because she never thought she would live to see the day.
“My first reaction was shock, I was happy,” said Cano. But “I really got angry and disappointed” when I heard the terms of the agreement, said the Boyle Heights resident.
“They literally got away with murder,” she said in disgust.
Mark Lopez shares the sentiment. “When crime is committed in our neighborhoods we go to jail, sometimes we’re even deported, so for them to just pay a fine and leave is ridiculous,” said the clearly disappointed Lopez. “Our lives are not a parking ticket. We deserve better.”
California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control, DTSC, was not a party to the negotiations between Exide and federal authorities, but has been charged with making sure Exide’s complies with the terms of the deal.
The agency said the first phase of closure will take between 19 to 22 months and will include demolishing buildings “down to dirt.”
The second phase will involve cleaning beyond the facility and into the neighborhoods.
DTSC had earlier secured $14 million from Exide for the clean up of 216 potentially contaminated properties, although some of that amount still has to be approved by bankruptcy court later this month.
DTSC Director Barbara Lee claims the U.S. Attorney’s agreement will accelerate the payment schedule and ultimately “minimize the cost to the state.”
As a result, “[Exide] has a much greater incentive to work with us,” she said.
According to Lee, DTSC had already started the process to deny Exide’s application for a permanent permit — the company had been allowed to operate with a temporary one for more than three decades — when federal authorities struck their deal.
“[Exide] knew we were going to deny their permit and that they were going to be shut down irrespective of what the USAO was going to do,” Lee said.
Herrera says he was surprised that the U.S. Attorney’s office got involved.
“The [federal government] and local politicians really came through for our community,” he said. “The state never stuck up for us.”
Many like Herrera are angry DTSC did not act sooner. They are also angry Gov. Jerry Brown last year vetoed Sen. Kevin de Leon’s bill to create stricter oversight of state agencies like DTSC.
“Yes Exide is down, but DTSC is now responsible for the mess they allowed here in our communities,” said Lopez.
“The state of California needs reform and laws with teeth that will stick,” Marquez said.
Leading environmental groups are calling for an overhaul of the state’s regulatory agencies, with some going so far as to demand DTSC be shut down until it can be reorganized.
“I hope it’s legit,” said Rhianna Morales bluntly about the closure. “I hope [Exide] doesn’t come back with something.”
Lee, who has only been in her position for three months and inherited the mess from her predecessors, defends the agency against accusations it has repeatedly failed to take decisive action against Exide. She points out the agency has in recent years collected millions of dollars in fines from Exide, and that’s it’s effort to close the plant was thwarted by the courts.
“I have a lot of hope that Barbara [Lee] will turn the agency around,” says Herrera, but “to us, they are still the same agency.
Elsa Lopez thinks Exide “got off easy” and “should be charged with murder.”
Marquez told EGP, “Somebody has to get fired.”
Montes worries Exide will just move elsewhere and contaminate another community.
“[Exide’s] priority isn’t cleaning up, its making a profit,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney said its deal with Exide would allow the company to remain financially solvent so it can pay to clean up the damage it has caused. If they don’t, they will be criminally prosecuted.
For now, Boyle Heights resident Ethel Lopez, 60, is relieved that she will be able to breath fresh, clean air.
“We are getting rid of a polluter,” said Lopez. “As long as they are out, we should be fine.”
Many residents told EGP they feel they have helped secure a clean, safe environment for future generations.
“I’m very happy that this isn’t going to have to be my daughter’s fight,” Mark Lopez said.
“The next step is to make sure they clean up the site at Exide’s expense not at the cost of the community,” said Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias. “We need to hold these agencies accountable so this doesn’t happen again.”
“You can watch us going forward, we will clean this up,” promised Lee.
The U.S. Attorney’s announcement March 12 that it has reached an agreement with Exide Technologies to close its Vernon plant is certainly good news given the facility’s troubling history of toxic chemical emission and hazardous waste violations.
The acid-lead battery recycler has been operating for nearly three decades under a temporary permit, which gives new meaning to “temporary” here in Los Angeles County.
More than any other factor, we believe it was the unrelenting demonstrations and pressure from the community that is ultimately responsible for the U.S. Attorney’s decision to investigate and pursue charges against the company.
We salute the residents in Boyle Heights, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, and other neighborhoods for bringing this polluter its day of reckoning.
Exide demonstrated little to no respect for the residents who live near its plant or care about the trail of contamination it has left in our air, water and land.
Nor did the company care that it exposed thousands of residents to unsafe levels of cancer causing chemicals.
But state regulators are also deserving of blame in this environmental debacle.
They allowed Exide to stay in operation even after the California Department of Toxic Substance Control cited the company repeatedly for its unsafe emission levels of lead and other contaminants, and its unsafe handling of hazardous waste.
Exide entered into an agreement in the fall of 2014 with state regulators to set aside $38.6 million for the environmental clean up of the recycling facility should it close down due to its inability to operate the facility in a safe manner.
But it wasn’t until a criminal investigation was launched by federal authorities — which included the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation — that Exide is finally being held responsible for what the company admits is its years of illegal handling of hazardous waste.
Unfortunately, the agreement does not send anyone to jail and gross polluters, like criminal bankers and stock manipulators, will escape incarceration.
And while local residents and environmental activists are cheering news that the Vernon battery recycling plant will not only be permanently closed but demolished, they lack faith in state regulators to ensure Exide lives up to the terms of its agreement with federal authorities,
Their doubts are not unreasonable, given the decades of inaction by state agencies.
Even Gov. Brown, California’s sometimes-environmental hero, vetoed a law that would have required stricter oversight of regulatory agencies.
It’s long past time for State Legislators to pass legislation –and the governor to sign – that will bring greater oversight of DTSC, AQMD, and to set tighter standards for closing down toxic polluters.
Four southeast cities are joining forces to encourage residents to contribute ideas to the development of a master bike plan for their region.
But rather than holding the usual round of in-door meetings, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy and Vernon are holding free, informal bike rides in April and May to gather feedback from area residents on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.
The cities have some of the most heavily traveled roadways in the region and hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the number of cars on local streets and increasing the number of people riding bicycles and walking, goals set forth in the Active Transportation Program (ATP).
Bell Gardens is spearheading the initiative that will also look at connecting bike and pedestrian routes between the cities.
Each ride will be about six-miles long with stops along the way to allow for discussion and refreshments.
Participating cyclists are required to wear a helmet.
Data collected during the rides will be used by the cities to apply for ATP grants to pay for enhanced safety measures in their respective cities.
The first of the three information gathering cycling events was held last week in Cudahy and focused on how to improve access from the southeast communities to the Los Angeles River and Downtown Los Angeles.
The next bike rides will be held:
—Thursday, Apr. 9: Riders will meet at Bell Gardens High School (6119 Agra Street) at 1p.m. The topic will be: “How can walking and biking support the bigger goal of creating healthier, safer and more livable southern region?
—Saturday, May 23; Riders will meet at John Anson Ford Park (8000 Park Lane) in Bell Gardens at 10a.m. Topic: “How can walking and biking connect the people and places that make our neighborhoods unique?”
For more information, contact Bell Gardens Director of Public Works Chau Vu at (562) 334-1790.
Tucked in the middle of all the factories, warehouses and rendering plants in Vernon is an elementary school with more students than there are residents in the city.
Most of the students who attend Vernon City Elementary are the children of workers at local businesses who travel to the city from outlying cities and nearby neighborhoods. For many of the workers, time and money are often in short supply.
As parents, they find comfort knowing their child is close by in case of an emergency and that the school offers after-school programs they would be hard pressed to enroll them in closer to home.
A large number of Vernon Elementary students stay on campus after the 2:30 p.m. school bell rings to take part in Woodcraft Rangers after-school program, where they spend the afternoon learning about robotics, gardening and even American Sign Language.
For the last 20 years, Woodcraft Rangers – an after-school program designed for low-income neighborhoods that offer limited opportunities to its youth – has allowed kindergarten through sixth grade students at Vernon Elementary to participate in programs that would otherwise be out of their reach.
Unlike many other afterschool programs that only offer homework help, arts and crafts and play time, students in Woodcraft Rangers also participate in clubs organized around specific themes, such as dance, gardening, American Sign Language and robotics. They can also participate in structured sports programs like soccer and basketball.
“A lot of these kids can’t do the extra curricular activities because parents don’t have the time,” and Woodcraft Rangers fill that void, explains Principal Fabiola Hernandez.
That was the case for nine-year old Dulce Lupita Camarena who wanted to take dance classes and play a sport. Her mother Guadalupe Herrera said her work schedule and the expense would have made it impossible if it were not for the after-school program.
The help Herrera’s daughter gets with her homework is also a big deal for the Mexican-born mother, whose grasp of English is limited and who like many other immigrant parents has trouble reading and understanding homework assignments.
Students in the program can stay at the school until 6 p.m., an added blessing to working parents who don’t have anyone to pick up or care for their child when school lets out.
It’s a “big help,” says Herrera who lives in Compton and doesn’t end her workday at a local factory until 4:30 p.m. It also helps her very tight budget, saving about $100 week in added childcare costs which she must already pay for her youngest child.
Like most children at Vernon Elementary, Dulce is able to attend the small Los Angeles Unified District school on permit because her mother works in the city. Students travel to the school from Downey, Lynwood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Bell, Bell Gardens, Montebello, Los Angeles and beyond.
“If we didn’t have this program I don’t think we would have that many children enrolled in this school,” said Principal Hernandez, adding that when most parents inquire about the school they want to know if there is after-hours childcare.
It also helps that all activities, clubs, fieldtrips, supplies and uniforms are free.
Things that children from more affluent backgrounds neighborhoods might take for granted are a very big deal for Woodcraft Rangers participants like Roberto Carlos of Long Beach, who was thrilled the first time he saw his name printed on his basketball jersey.
The 11-year old also learned to build and program a small robot during the robotics club, something he says he never thought he would be able to do.
“It was a new experience,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
Clubs like robotics and gardening are an example of STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) infused into the curriculum of Woodcraft Rangers.
In the gardening club, students have grown beans, cilantro, kale, onions, potato, lettuce and corn in the school’s first community garden. They are allowed to take some of the vegetables home.
The school’s principal told EGP the after-school experience has other added benefits and “ has helped shy students excel beyond the classroom.”
“I can introduce myself” in sign language, said Analy Carrillo proudly, emphasizing the point.
The 10-year old said she didn’t know what sign language was before taking the class but she has quickly picked it up and has even performed Christmas carols and participated in a “Frozen” themed recital, all in sign language.
“Anything you teach to younger kids they are going to pick up fast, so long as we make it fun,” emphasized American Sign Language instructor Marla Vargas.
As part of Woodcraft’s dance club, Dulce has learned salsa, cumbia, break-dance and African-inspired routines. The dance team recently won first place in a local dance competition and now the young dancer is considering a career in the arts.
“I hope we win again,” she said enthusiastically.
“It motivates them and motivates us as parents to work harder,” said her mother, reflecting on the competitions and parades her daughters have been a part of because of the program.
Woodcraft Ranger site coordinator Jerry Garcia says the dance recitals, sports tournaments and other presentations have also helped “build a community in Vernon,” bringing residents from all over the region to the resident-poor city.
“This is the heart of the community,” he said.
Employers in the city of Vernon are encouraging their workers to apply for a chance to make the industrial city their home, by applying for one of the soon to open new affordable housing units being built in the city.
While as many as 55,000 workers commute to Vernon every day from cities as close as Maywood to more distant locations throughout L.A. County, only about 100 or so people can currently call themselves residents. But that will change in a few months when the city doubles its population with the opening of a new housing complex in late April or May.
Businesses have been making a push to get their employees to apply, but applications are open to anyone who meets the income qualifications for the Vernon Village Park project, located at 4675 East 52nd Dr., near the city’s southeast border with Maywood.
The deadline to apply for one of the 45-units — 9 one-bedroom apartments, 22 two-bedroom units and 14 three-bedroom units — is 6 p.m., Friday, Feb. 27. A lottery is scheduled for Tuesday, March 3 at 6p.m at City Hall.
Marisa Olguin of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce encouraged the city’s 1,800 companies to share the information with their employees.
“Who wouldn’t want to live close to work,” said Olguin in a city newsletter. “I can easily imagine there would be many Vernon workers who will find Vernon Village Park an attractive option to their present housing situation.”
Olguin added that the move would relieve the stress for commuters who would go from gridlocked freeways to a 10-minute commute.
Melissa Hansen of Hansen Cold Storage Construction, said the Vernon company made sure they put that information on display for their employees when they heard about the project.
Councilmember-elect Melissa Ybarra told EGP she wants to make sure everyone is encouraged to apply.
“Remember, we want to be transparent and increase that [voter] population,” she said. “If not, it will eliminate what we fought for,” she said, referring to city near disincorporation in 2011.
United Steel Fence Company co-owner Alma Arredondo, however, said she did not think there was a need to encourage their employees to apply for the housing, since many of their workers already have homes.
“They love coming here to work, but they love where they live,” she said.
Luis Saavedra is the general manager for Tapatio Foods. He told EGP most of their employees are already local and live in adjacent cities such as Maywood.
According to a survey conducted by the chamber 80 percent of the city’s 55,000 employees live within 5 miles of their job.
Meta Housing Corporation is building and will operate the apartment complex through Solari Enterprise Inc. The city agreed to lease the two-acre property to the developer for $1 a year for 65 years.
The gated community will be non-smoking and have amenities such as onsite management, community building, a laundry room, computer lab, tot lot and onsite parking.
To qualify, applicants must meet household gross annual income restrictions based on the number of occupants.
Gross annual incomes may not exceed $34,260 for a one-person household; $39,120 for a two-persons; $44,040 for a three-persons; $48,900 four-persons; $52,860 for a five people and $56,760 for a six-person household.
Rent is expected to range from $687 for a one-bedroom to $1,272 for a three-bedroom. Section 8 will be accepted.
The project has been in the works since 2013, in response to criticism that Vernon lacked a true electorate and was prone to corruption. The new residents will also help double the city’s voting population. During Tuesday’s election only 26 of the city’s 63 registered voters submitted their mail-in-ballot, according to preliminary results.
For application information, call (800) 801-8440 ext. 7203.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Vernon last week to call for the closure of Exide Techonologoes, an embattled lead-acid battery recycler in the city.
“Stand by our side, shut down Exide,” chanted residents and environmental activists from Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park.
The protest was in response to recent hazardous waste violations issued against Exide by the Department of Toxic Substance Control. The citations included unauthorized tanks filled with contaminated sludge and failure to “sufficiently protect against spills.”
For the protesters, the problems go beyond Exide. They accused DTSC of engaging in flagrant environmental racism, saying the regulatory agency has not shut down Exide, despite its long history of air quality violations and arsenic emissions, because the affected communities are home to working-class Latinos.
“DTSC’s actions show that it has placed Exide’s and the State’s financial interests above the Latino community’s human right to breath clean air and live in safe communities,” said Milton Hernandez-Nimatuj, a youth organizer with CBE, Communities for a Better Environment.
The participants pointed to the nearly identical Exide facility that was shut down in the white-affluent city of Frisco, Texas as proof of their claim.
The group accused DTSC of imposing lighter fines and entering into settlement agreements instead of shutting down the plant that up until recently had been operating on a temporary permit.
But DTSC continues to say the agency is fully aware of the community’s concerns and they are holding Exide accountable.
“We are carefully and thoroughly evaluating Exide’s compliance record, including these most recent violations, as part of our decision on their permit application. We will make a decision before the end of the year, and in the meantime, wherever we see non-compliance, we will issue violations,” DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax said in a statement to EGP.
The Vernon plant has been closed since March 2014 to make equipment improvements to meet South Coast Air Quality Management District air quality standards. DTSC must decide whether to issue a permit by the end of the year or Exide would face closure.
Gladys Limon, staff attorney at CBE, said Exide does not deserve that permit.
“DTSC has a duty to initiate a permit denial process based on Exide’s historical and ongoing violations,” she said at Monday’s rally. “It is reckless and creates dangerous precedent to allow such a facility…to continue to operate.”
DTSC countered that the permit process has been transparent and open to the public and a public comment portion will be considered before the agency’s final decision.
Representatives of L.A. County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis and the County’s Department of Community and Senior Services also took part in the rally and the supervisor pledged the County’s support to “protect the health and safety of communities threatened by pollution from the Vernon plant.” She pledged assistance to workers who could be displaced if Exide is closed permanently.
According to Solis, the county will be leading three special orientations for Exide dislocated workers in Huntington Park, Santa Fe Springs and East Los Angeles.
On Feb. 10, she told her fellow supervisors that county health officials should make department staff available to follow up on the lead blood testing program, both to discuss the results of tests already taken and to encourage more people to get tested by the end-of-the –month deadline.
“No community should receive less of what they are entitled to. Let’s level the playing field,” Solis said during the board meeting.
Exide, however, continues to say the company is committed to working with regulators to meet permit requirements and health and safety standards, and to get their approximately 135 employees back to work.
“We recognize the community’s concerns and are committed to engaging openly and transparent with local residents,” said Tom Strang, vice president for Exide’s Evironment and Safety, in a statement.
Exide officials say the company has invested $35 million in environmental, health and safety measures since 2010.
Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights said re-training Exide employees is key.
“Surely our political leadership agrees that the safety and health of 100,000 people is more important than 100 jobs which pose grave danger to workers,” he said at the Vernon rally.
AQMD previously found that 110,000 people in the area were exposed to cancer-causing chemical emissions from Exide.
Vernon Councilmember-elect Melissa Ybarra told EGP that she drives by Exide everyday on her way to work but she has yet to take a stance on the controversial topic.
However, like her father before her, she too is concerned about the plant.
“My concern is making sure the employees are healthy,” said Ybarra, who was elected Tuesday to fill out her late father’s term.
Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, is not satisfied by the company’s efforts to remediate the health concerns. He said his mother and grandmother fought against environmentl justice in the 1990s, and things haven’t change.
“I’m standing here, fighting to shut down Exide permanently, so my toddler daughters won’t have to fight Exide to protect their children’s health in the future.”
For the first time in Vernon’s history, two women will be on the city council at the same time and be responsible for making decisions in southeast industrial city.
On Tuesday, voters elected the daughter of late councilman Michael A. Ybarra who died unexpectedly in September last year. Melissa Ybarra will hold the seat for the remainder of her father’s term, which expires in April 2017.
“I’m excited to start this new chapter in my life and look forward to working with the city, businesses and residents to help the city grow,” she told EGP Wednesday.
Ybarra, 37, who ran unopposed, received 26 votes out of the 63 registered voters in the city, according to preliminary results.
She will join Luz Martinez who was reelected to office last year, as the third woman to ever serve on the Vernon City Council.
The lifelong resident has worked as an operations manager for the last 18 years.
She will be sworn into office in March.
“The city council has been all male and now there will be two Latinas,” she said excitedly. “I plan to work with everyone to get the city back on the prosperous way with businesses wanting to come to Vernon.”
A recent inspection led the Department of Toxic Substance Control Wednesday to issue eight new violations to embattled Exide Technologies related to their handling of hazardous waste.
The most serious violation observed at the Vernon facility by DTSC and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspectors was unauthorized tanks filled with contaminated sludge. The inspectors also found that the plant failed to “sufficiently protect against spills” in an area where battery acid is stored.
Other alleged violations include: improperly labeling and not closing containers with hazardous waste, a lack of adequate secondary containment and placing hazardous waste with liquids in a building without a functioning leak detention.
The two-day inspections took place Jan. 20 and Jan 21 as part of the company’s application for a permanent hazardous waste permit.
Newly appointed DTSC Director Barbara A. Lee told EGP the results from the recent inspections will be taken into consideration when she makes a decision on Exide’s permit. Exide must receive a permanent permit by Dec. 31, as required by Senate Bill 712, or face closure.
“I felt it was important we confirm [Exide’s] applications accurately reflects the present conditions of the site,” she said of the inspection.
This is the first set of violations issued since Lee was appointed to her position in December.
Exide must address all violations within 10 days or face penalties and additional enforcement actions.
“These violations represent our commitment to the community that we will keep a close watch on Exide and ensure that the facility is in compliance with all pertinent laws,” said DTSC Deputy Director Elise Rothschild.
Exide officials said the company will continue to work with state regulators.
“The company is already taking action pursuant to the notice and will continue to work with the DTSC so that all applicable standards and protocols are met. We intend to operate a premier recycling facility,” said Tom Strang, Exide’s Vice-President of Environment Health and Safety.
Smelting operations have been shut down at the Vernon facility since March 2014 as the company works to install equipment upgrades to comply with state air quality standards.
The plant located at 2700 S. Indiana St. is one of the only two lead-acid battery-recycling plants west of the Rockies. The facility has been a target by state regulators after years of arsenic emissions and numerous air quality violations.
Un pequeño convivio se llevó a cabo el lunes en la Iglesia de la Resurrección en Boyle Heights, lugar que usualmente da la bienvenida a residentes para expresar sus preocupaciones sobre asuntos de la comunidad y discutir su ira en contra de Exide Technologies localizada en Vernon.
Pero esta semana el estado de ánimo era diferente. Era de celebración, victorioso. Hubo pizza y pastel.
Los miembros del grupo de Vigilancia Vecinal Resurrección estaban celebrando la noticia de los más recientes problemas legales que enfrenta la planta controversial de reciclaje y fundido de baterías de plomo-ácido, que creen ha puesto la salud de sus familias, amigos y vecinos en riesgo.
“Esta es una vista previa de la verdadera fiesta”, dijo Monseñor John Moretta, en referencia a la gran celebración que probablemente tendría lugar si Exide se ve obligado a cerrar de forma permanente.
Múltiples agencias han estado atacando a la fabricante de baterías y de reciclaje sobre sus repetidas violaciónes de emisión del aire y la presentación de la semana pasada de la Comisión de Seguridad y Cambios de EE.UU. a Exide reveló que un jurado federal está investigando la planta ante posibles cargos criminales.
El citatorio del juez federal exige “documentos relacionados con transportación de materiales y emisiones a la atmósfera”. Los fiscales federales de Los Ángeles están detrás de la investigación que se dirige a Exide y a algunas “personas no identificadas”, según los documentos presentados.
Funcionarios de la compañía dijeron que cooperarían con la investigación, pero “no pueden estimar la cantidad del rango de pérdida, si existieran” que serían causadas por la investigación federal, de acuerdo con los documentos presentados.
Exide se declaró en bancarrota en junio del 2013 para darle espacio a la compañía para reestructurar su deuda. Los rumores de una posible quiebra en abril provocaron un gran venta masiva de acciones, pero las acciones de la compañía ya habían estado en constante disminución desde su alta en el 2011 debido al aumento de los costos de producción, los problemas de liquidez y la pérdida de cuota de mercado para sus baterías de plomo Exide y North Star a Johnson Controls Inc. Varias demandas colectivas relacionadas con seguridad han sido presentadas contra Exide por los inversores alegando que la compañía no dio a conocer la información relacionada con sus problemas de emisión de arsénico y plomo y una quiebra inminente.
Read this article in English: Exide’s Latest Troubles is Good News to Locals
Noticias de la investigación es exactamente lo que Moretta y grupos locales de justicia ambiental han estado esperando oír desde que se reveló el año pasado que hasta 110.000 residentes y trabajadores del área este y sureste fueron expuestos a productos químicos que causan cáncer.
“Una vez que tiene a los federales encima, es lo más alto que puede llegar”, dijo Moretta. “Para mí eso significa que ellos están en una gran persecución”.
La última investigación del gran jurado viene de la mano de la carta al gobernador Brown por parte de la Junta de Supervisores del Condado de Los Ángeles instándole a ordenar la limpieza del suelo contaminado alrededor de las casas cercanas a la planta.
Un equipo de ataque de amenaza tóxica establecido por el condado ha identificado 39 viviendas en Boyle Heights y Maywood, donde se encontraron niveles elevados de plomo en los patios. El Departamento de Control de Sustancias Tóxicas (DTSC) ordenó a Exide la limpieza de sólo dos propiedades donde muestras del suelo revelaron altos niveles de plomo de lo usual.
En respuesta, la Supervisora Gloria Molina acusó a DTSC de ser un “obstáculo” para la justicia ambiental en las comunidades locales, citando el “fracaso” de la agencia para pedir una limpieza de los 39 sitios.
Sin embargo, los funcionarios de DTSC dijeron a EGP vía email que la agencia ha tenido una comunicación frecuente con el condado y “les dijo claramente que [DTSC] se ha comprometido a examinar el suelo en esos 39 hogares y la limpieza de las propiedades si es necesario”.
El diario Los Angeles Times informó la semana pasada que los reguladores estatales tienen previsto ampliar las pruebas de 144 viviendas en un área de 2 millas cuadradas al norte y al sur de la planta, incluyendo partes de Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park y el área no incorporada del Este de Los Ángeles.
En la reunión del lunes, el Alcalde de la Ciudad de Bell Nestor Valencia dijo que le gustaría ver que el área de prueba sea expandido para incluir a más comunidades del sureste, incluyendo a Bell, su ciudad natal.
Pero para Valencia y muchos de los residentes de Boyle Heights, las pruebas y limpieza por sí solas nunca serán suficiente.
“Esto no ha terminado hasta que Exide deje esta comunidad”, dijo Valencia.
“A la larga, el cierre es lo mejor para la comunidad”, hizo eco de Moretta.
Para residentes como Miguel Alfaro, las últimas noticias significan el comienzo del fin para la instalación en Vernon.
“Esta es la punta del iceberg, más está por venir”, dijo Moretta, anticipando más problemas legales para Exide.
La planta, que recicla cerca de 25.000 baterías al día en el 2700 S. Indiana St., ha estado cerrada desde mediados de marzo, mientras que la compañía trabaja para reducir las emisiones al aire con el fin de cumplir con los requisitos estatales y locales. La planta se cerró temporalmente el año pasado debido a violaciónes de las emisiones de arsénico y recientemente demandado por el Distrito de Administración de la Calidad del Aire de la Costa Sur sobre presuntas violaciónes de calidad del aire.
Además, la Agencia de Protección Ambiental de EE.UU. anunció que la planta violó los límites federales sobre emisiones de plomo en más de 30 ocasiones entre septiembre y abril.
“Ustedes han estado en esto por mucho tiempo”, dijo Moretta a los residentes. “La corriente está subiendo finalmente a nuestro favor”.
Información City News Service fue utilizada en este reporte.
Para reabrir la planta de baterías de reciclaje de plomo en Vernon se tendrá que cumplir con dos órdenes de mitigación que requieren las instalaciones para mejorar los controles de contaminación del aire o de lo contrario corre el riesgo de ser cerrada permanentemente.
En una reunión en Boyle Heights el lunes, residentes de la comunidad y sus alrededores dijeron que no están contentos con un acuerdo que permitirá a Exide Technologies otra oportunidad para permanecer abierta, pese a años de violaciones de emisiones tóxicas.
Read this article in English: Residents Don’t Trust Exide to Live Up to Deal
“Estoy decepcionado de que fueron capaces de llegar a un acuerdo, pero no me sorprende”, dijo la activista de la coalición eastside Doelorez Mejía, quien dijo que la decisión de la Junta de Audiencias casi independiente del Distrito de Administración de Calidad del Aire de la Costa Sur (SCAQMD) fue el resultado de una “declaración de culpabilidad”.
Según el acuerdo, Exide Technologies hará mejoras “sustanciales” en su planta de fundición de plomo con sede en Vernon. También será necesario realizar y superar las pruebas de emisiones completas antes de que pueda reanudar sus operaciones.
Como parte del acuerdo, Exide ha accedido a abandonar su demanda contra las nuevas reglas de la Junta de Calidad aérea que fijan normas de emisión más estrictas. SCAQMD, sin embargo, se ha reservado el derecho de continuar con su demanda solicitando $40 millones en multas de Exide relacionada con numerosas violaciones de la contaminación del aire estándar, incluidas las emisiones tóxicas ilegales de plomo y arsénico.
“Estos pedidos pondrán en orden medidas adicionales para proteger la salud pública durante la mejora de las instalaciones, así como las operaciones diarias—si la planta nunca se vuelve a abrir”, dijo Barry Wallerstein, funcionario ejecutivo de SCAQMD, sobre la decisión de la Junta de Audiencias.
La compañía de reciclaje de baterías se vio obligada a suspender las operaciones en marzo con el fin de instalar equipos actualizados para cumplir con la nueva norma de la agencia. Si la planta cumple con todos los requisitos podría reabrir tan pronto como a finales de este año o principios del próximo año, según SCAQMD.
Esa posibilidad no le agradó a la Vice-Alcaldesa de Huntington Park Karina Macias.
“La comunidad ha dado muchas oportunidades [a Exide] para cumplir plenamente”, dijo. No tiene sentido “que tengan otra oportunidad”.
“Estas agencias gubernamentales no se supone que deben negociar, se supone que deben proteger a la comunidad”, hizo eco la residente de Boyle Heights, Teresa Márquez.
Exide ha estado bajo escrutinio extremo por las agencias estatales, funcionarios electos y grupos comunitarios que luchan por la compañía en múltiples frentes, algunos con la esperanza de forzar un cierre definitivo de la empresa.
Una evaluación de riesgo para la salud en el 2013 encontró que Exide estaba creando un riesgo inaceptable para la salud a los residentes cercanos en Vernon, Maywood, Huntington Park, Commerce, Boyle Heights y el Este de Los Ángeles. Niveles más altos de lo normal de plomo fueron encontrados recientemente en las muestras de suelo tomadas de los patios de casas y parques cerca de la planta.
Exide Technologies ha afirmado continuamente que sus emisiones de arsénico se han reducido significativamente. Bajo las nuevas órdenes de reducción, se requerirá que la planta lleve a cabo una nueva evaluación de los riesgos de salud, cuando se cumplan todas las mejoras.
Exide también pagará por un consultor ambiental que supervisará que la planta este controlando el plomo y otros contaminantes tóxicos del aire. El consultor proporcionará informes de estado semanales a la Junta de Audiencias, Exide y SCAQMD, quienes lo pondrán a disposición del público en su sitio web.
De acuerdo con Exide, este es el primer paso para que la instalación vuelva a plena producción.
“Exide se ha comprometido a cumplir las nuevas normas de calidad del aire. Completando este plan [de mejora] destacará el desempeño ambiental de nuestras instalaciones de Vernon y nos permitirá reanudar nuestro papel como parte de la economía verde de California”, dijo Thomas Strang, vicepresidente de Medio Ambiente Salud y Seguridad de Exide.
El Reverendo John Moretta, de la Iglesia de la Resurrección en Boyle Heights le dijo a EGP que la compañía de reciclaje debería haber hecho estas mejoras hace años.
“Durante años nos dijeron que no podían hacer las mejoras y ahora, de repente, lo están haciendo ya que ven que hay una posibilidad de un cierre”.
El lunes durante la reunión semanal comunitaria en la Iglesia de la Resurreción, muchos residentes de Boyle Heights expresaron sus sentimientos de decepción y el sentimiento de derrota por la decisión de AQMD de no cerrar definitivamente la planta.
“A menos que ustedes utilicen un martillo para cerrarla, son sólo palabras”, dijo Frank Villalobos de Barrio Planners.
“¿Cuántas oportunidades y esperanza [AQMD] le ha dado a Exide?”, preguntó Miguel Alfaro. “¿Dónde estamos? Ellos no nos dan esperanza”.
Sin embargo, para algunos residentes, no todo esta perdido. El Departamento de Control de Sustancias Tóxicas y (DTSC) y la Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA) mantienen la fe de Exide.
El mes pasado DTSC no aprobó la solicitud de permiso de operación de Exide. Exide recicla ocho millones de baterías de plomo por año y ha operado con un permiso temporal por los últimos 32 años, un punto que ha enfurecido a la comunidad.
“Ninguna comunidad debe sufrir todos estos años después de violación tras violación, tras violación” dijo Moretta. “Ellos deberían haber sido clausurados hace años. Estamos pagando por ello ahora con la salud de las personas”.
Una reciente legislación estatal promovida por el Senador Ricardo Lara, que representa a las comunidades cerca de Exide, ya no permitirá que la planta siga funcionando con un permiso provisional y se cerrará si no cumple con todos los permisos para el año 2015.
La desconfianza en la comunidad es evidente, y muchos, como Márquez, sienten que la empresa no ha asumido la responsabilidad por la eliminación de las emisiones tóxicas de los hogares y de los suelos.
“Esta compañía no ha hecho otra cosa que huir” de la responsabilidad, dijo en referencia a la compañía de la declaración de quiebra, lo que ella dice es una forma de evitar realmente el pago de la comunidad por el daño que han hecho.
“Queremos ver a dónde irán los $40 millones [de demandas] y si van a ir realmente a la comunidad”, dijo Moretta.
Mientras tanto, el residente de Boyle Heights espera que la EPA lance su propia investigación.
El mes pasado, la EPA anunció que Exide violó los límites federales de emisión de plomo en al menos 30 ocasiones en el último año.
La agencia previamente reconoció que la “cantidad ilegal de plomo en el aire puso la salud y el bienestar de los residentes cercanos a los riesgos”.
“Por primera vez sentimos que teníamos la oportunidad de cerrar Exide … por fin alguien dijo lo que queremos oír”, dijo la residente de Boyle Heights Aurora Bañuelos.
Exide ha dicho que planean gastar más de $5 millones en mejoras durante los próximos dos años en las instalaciones de la calle Indiana, para un total de $20 millones desde el 2010.
Mejía dice que quiere ver a una total y una completa limpieza de la comunidad antes de que se haga cualquier acuerdo adicional y espera que al menos una de las otras agencias involucradas en última instancia, cierren la planta.
“El impulso está de nuestro lado”, dijo Moretta.
“Sólo que no quiero poner todos mis huevos en una sola canasta”, advirtió Mejía.