“It’s just another sign of their lack of oversight. It’s just another sign. You know, they’re not going to do anything until the judge orders them to do something to fix up that place,” Msgr. John Moretta, pastor of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, was saying with some weariness in his voice.
That place is Exide Technologies.
The lead battery recycling plant in the little City of Vernon has a history of lead and arsenic toxic pollution (both air and ground) dating from before Exide bought the plant in 2000. It’s been cited for multiple serious violations, repeatedly fined and even shut down. Last year, California officials suspended operations there because of emissions of arsenic, posing a grave health risk — including increased levels of cancer — to more than 100,000 residents in nearby communities, including Boyle Heights.
The 15-acre facility, located about five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles since 1922, hasn’t been up and running since March. The Georgia-based company can’t meet strict new rules adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). When operating, the plant recycles some 41,000 batteries, including car batteries. Lead and plastic are salvaged instead of being sent off to environmentally safe landfills.
Yet the AQMD has declared that Exide could reopen if it installed arsenic-emissions-control equipment, and if it didn’t let lead-contaminated dust be released into the air while it was making improvements.
But in early August, the Department of Justice issued a grand jury criminal investigation against the battery recycler.
And the newest violation to be uncovered happened in mid-October, when KCBS-TV first reported that hazardous waste from Exide had dripped from tractor-trailers onto public highways. At a weigh station off Interstate 5, just north of Santa Clarita, the Highway Patrol discovered that a vehicle carrying acid- and lead-tainted liquid from the plant was leaking.
Three days later, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), while inspecting the Vernon plant, reported similar spills from tractor-trailers at the facility itself. DTSC cited the company for three hazardous waste violations this month after conducting more on-site inspections.
A ‘sham settlement’
Msgr. Moretta, who has pastored Resurrection for almost 30 years, was so moved by the latest revelation that he wrote to Gov. Jerry Brown. The priest was upset by serious rumors that California was about to settle with Exide — and on the cheap.
“So I wrote to the governor saying, ‘In your veto message of Sen. Kevin De Leon’s bill [which would have given tougher enforcement powers to the DTSC to regulate toxic polluters like Exide], you have stated that DTSC is dysfunctional,’ and from what we understand the state is about to make a settlement with Exide,” he told The Tidings, paraphrasing from his letter.
“‘This would be nothing more than a sham settlement because, first of all, how can [state regulators] make a settlement when no one knows the extent or the cost of the cleanup?’ No one, for sure, has determined that.
“And if they make a settlement without that information,” he pointed out, “then it’s business as usual, that nothing has changed in the office of the DTSC. They just put things under the rug and let these businesses continue.”
Moreover, the veteran East L.A. pastor wasn’t really encouraged by Gov. Brown signing another California senator’s bill regarding Exide. The facility has operated with a temporary hazardous waste permit ever since it bought the Vernon plant in 2000. The new law, sponsored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, set the end of 2015 for DTSC to grant a full hazardous waste permit to the troubled plant or shut it down for good.
“Well, I was encouraged when I first understood that the shut-down date was supposedly December of 2014,” said Msgr. Moretta with a knowing chuckle. “But then I heard the date was actually December of 2015. So, again, Exide has always had exemptions, always had extensions, always been given the break. And the community, in the meanwhile, has been the one to carry the brunt of everything.”
Something else concerned the pastor immensely.
Word from his sources was the settlement would be in the $50 million range, which was basically like a bail bond. Only 10 percent of that amount actually had to be put up in case the Exide plant closed or left Vernon. And this, coincidently, was exactly what was happening with the company’s battery recycling plant in Frisco City, Texas.
(According to the Dallas Morning News, Exide had agreed to close that plant in 2012, not long after filing for bankruptcy. But two years later, who will pay for the extensive cleanup is still at issue.)
“If the $50 million figure is right, and in reality the company only has to put up $5 million, it just seems so unfair and so business as usual,” Msgr. Moretta asserted. “There is seepage, drainage problems that go back to the original company. Because in those days, the company used to drain — when they would do their smelting — into, like, an open hole on the property. And now the property is all cemented over. So to fix it right, they would have to dig all that up.
“This is what provoked me to write to the governor.”
The pastor admitted he really didn’t have any idea what the total cost would be to not only clean up the plant itself, but also surrounding neighborhoods. He stressed how the deadly chemicals have been there for “God only knows how long,” and now have to be dug up from the cemented-over ground and carefully removed.
“Oh, the battle continues,” Msgr. Moretta said, with a sigh. “It’s a shame. You know, I don’t know if this was any other place in L.A., it probably would have been resolved, and the governor would have probably said, ‘It’s unfair that the health risk of 100,000 people is happening. This company has to be shut down.’
“It’s, obviously, not a safe business to be located in such a high-density population area.”