At an evening party on March 15 in Resurrection Church’s parish hall in Boyle Heights, parishioners and others celebrated a public health and environmental victory that was more than a decade in coming.

Exide Technologies, a battery recycling company, agreed to permanently close its plant in nearby Vernon, demolish it and clean up all pollution to escape criminal charges. The deal was struck by the U.S. attorney’s office after a seven-month-long investigation by a federal grand jury. Investigators found that Exide had been emitting lead, arsenic and other toxic substances into the air, water supply and even highways while transporting it to an unpermitted facility in Bakersfield.

At the celebration, five white-shirted mariachis played and sang on the stage. Adults, teens and children feasted on chocolate-covered strawberries, Mexican pastries, cupcakes and cookies, along with two large cakes. Community and political leaders of the hard-fought effort were honored. And a smiling Msgr. John Moretta, Resurrection’s pastor for more than three decades and one of the struggle’s steadfast leaders, popped a bottle of champagne.

n‘There will be light one day’

“I had no idea it would come to this celebration day of Exide shutting down for good,” Daniel Meraz, a 38-year-old religion teacher at Bishop Mora Salesian High School, told The Tidings. “I know Msgr. Moretta has always fought and fought. And he’s said, ‘We’ve just got to continue fighting. There will be light one day.’

“It’s just a case of proving that if you fight long enough and that you believe in what you’re fighting for, you’ll succeed. Just like the Mothers of East Los Angeles did in stopping the state in building a prison in East L.A. in the mid-‘80s.”

Meraz said that over the years he’s informed his Salesian students about the latest developments in trying to shut down Exide. In his religion classes, they’ve talked about the moral issues involved. He has urged them to attend town hall meetings and public protests. And now he’s really looked forward to discussing the community’s victory.

But the victory was also personal for the high school educator.

“My mother, Maria, and father, Alejandro, were very involved,” their son said. “My mother is here right now, but my father died two months ago. And, actually, part of his illness was due to the air pollution. He had congestive heart failure. He had a hard time breathing and was in a wheelchair the last couple of years. He had asthma.

“I think right now he is rejoicing and happy that it came to this result. The sad part, he wasn’t able to see this happen. But he’s watching over it. So seeing this happen is just a victory to him.”

Sal Martinez, who lives at Sixth Street and Euclid Avenue in Boyle Heights, was also celebrating the community’s victory. Since 2001 he’s worked with Msgr. Moretta as a member of Resurrection’s Neighborhood Watch team against the battery recycling plant polluting the area and beyond.

“For us this victory is a story of Goliath, 0, and Resurrection, 2,” he reported. “Because we not only fought Exide for their arsenic and lead, we also fought the building of the incinerator Vernon power plant. (After a six-year battle headed by Mothers of East Los Angeles, Greenpeace, local politicians and Resurrection Church, the project was abandoned in 1991 because of high opposition due to health risks.)

“So to be victorious against these two giants is not something we took on alone,” noted Martinez. “We did it with our elected leaders. We did it with our neighboring cities that are affected by this, and the community in general responded. So we’re very excited now about this second victory.”

nStudents’ ‘big voice’

So was Angelica Figueroa, principal of Resurrection School the last 15 years. Her students testified at town meetings about how on very polluted days they couldn’t even go outside for recess. They wrote cards to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. And some were in a poignant documentary four years ago called “The Right to Breathe.”

“Our students were ecstatic at the great news of the closure of Exide,” said Figueroa. “And this is great for our community. Our students are taught to be college ready and to be leaders in our community. Even at a very young age, we’re trying to let them know that their voice, as little as it may be, can be a big voice. And this showed it.”

Sitting at tables near the principal were two eighth-graders at the parochial school. Brenda Candido, 13, said, “Well, it was a victory. And now we have a big right to breathe without getting sick.”

Mario Navarrete, 14, remembered many days since kindergarten when he and his classmates had to stay inside because of the pollution from Exide and the cars and trucks on the 60, 710 and 5 freeways that cross through East L.A. “I honestly thought it was good,” he said of the shutdown. “At least now that it’s closed, we won’t have the chance of getting sick from asthma or something. And the younger kids, they’ll have the chance to spend their recess outside, happy with smiles on their faces.” 

nCleanup and costs

As the executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, Jane Williams has been “very concerned” about Exide’s lead, arsenic and other emissions for seven years. And for all of that time, she was “very frustrated” that she and her organization couldn’t get any enforcement action with teeth from the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.

But after working for two years with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, who in turn worked with Los Angeles County and the U.S. Department of Justice, everything changed with the March 11 settlement to permanently shut down the Vernon plant.

“It’s great because the facility is closed,” she said at the Resurrection celebration. “That victory itself cannot be underestimated. It is a huge victory, a huge victory. That’s phase one.”

Williams said phase two, however, was just as important. It involves cleaning up the identified lead-contaminated homes near the 15-acre site. She pointed out that so far only the yards of some of the homes have been dug up and removed. But their ineriors haven’t been decontaminated, and that’s where residents spend most of their lives.

“And when they actually start cleaning up Exide itself and razing it to the ground, well, that’s going to create a ton of lead if it’s not done correctly,” she stressed. “And even now people are living in peril even though the facility is shut down. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Even though it’s closed, it’s still emitting lead just from the ground.”

The head of California Communities Against Toxics also noted that the $50 million set aside for the total cleanup of the site and homes isn’t nearly enough.

“This is like a $100 million problem now because they have so much lead there,” she said. “A lead consultant we hired said it will probably be at least a two-square-mile area to be cleaned up.”

Pausing, Williams added, “We’re going to continue until every bit of lead is cleaned up in East Los Angeles. We’re not going away.”