“They have not been good neighbors,” reported Msgr. John Moretta. “And this is a reason to shut them down.”

On this day, Dec. 18, the seasoned 72-year-old pastor of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights had just received the good news: The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, in an emergency measure, ordered the Vernon car battery recycling plant that the pastor and other community activists, elected officials and residents had been battling for years to clean up its toxic lead and metal deposits.

Exide Technologies’ plant off Bandini Boulevard in the gritty little industrial city has until Dec. 31 to develop a working plan and Jan. 31 to implement it. In their letter to the battery recycler, state regulators didn’t mince words: “DTSC considers the elevated concentrations of lead and other contaminants … an immediate threat to human health and the environment (i.e. the Los Angeles River).”

The current public health and environmental struggle goes back years. But it was only last March that the South Coast Air Quality Management District got around to telling Exide to reduce its dangerous emissions. This came after tests showed the plant was a potential danger to at least 110,000 people living in a wide swath of southeast Los Angeles County, stretching from Boyle Heights to Maywood and Huntington Park.

Exide also was ordered to hold public meetings where local residents were told about the increased cancer risks they faced and steps being taken to reduce those real risks.

Sam Atwood, spokesman for the SCAQMD, remarked that his watchdog agency had never seen “nothing close to this … never.”

In the past, the 15-acre plant has also been ordered to suspend operations a couple of brief times, while lawmakers and residents have expressed their outrage at town hall hearings. Los Angele City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, has said about the battery recycler, “I’m outraged. I’m appalled.”

Exide, meanwhile, argued just as strongly at the last public meeting at Cal State L.A., Dec. 14, that its lead and arsenic emissions have dropped drastically.

“We’ve been told that before,” Msgr. Moretta told The Tidings. “We’ve been promised that their operation is the state of the art. But still there is a problem with lead. If you go to the SCAQMD website and look under Exide, they’ll list all the different violations. The arsenic is like the icing on the cake. We were told about two years ago when Exide actually completed encapsulating part of the plant that this was going to eliminate the problem.

There are so many people now, he continued, who are looking back in retrospect “and trying to connect the dots to their own health problem. We have a slew of attorneys who are canvassing the area to look specifically for different problems. And they are coming up with cases of people who have severe health concerns because of this place. This has the capacity of affecting 250,000 people.

“And now Exide is saying they’ve cleared up 95 percent of the arsenic problem,” he said. “Well, is five percent acceptable? What level is acceptable for arsenic?”

 At the volatile Dec. 14 hearing, Exide representatives complained that the Air Quality Management District was caving in to political pressure. During his testimony, Msgr. Moretta countered, “I’m not here because of any political pressure. I’m here because of a moral pressure…. Can you imagine how we felt, first lead and now arsenic?

“So, yes, we have contacted our lawmakers. It’s not a secret, we have lobbied,” he acknowledged in a recent interview at Resurrection. “And the purpose I think of a democracy is that leadership represents the people. So our leadership has listened to us. Every elected official has said this is intolerable. This is not fair. You cannot have a health risk assessment that could affect a quarter of a million people and just sit back and wait for the authorities to go about business as usual.”

Grass-roots struggles

During Msgr. Moretta’s 30-year pastorship at Resurrection, there have been other grass-roots struggles to protect his beloved Boyle Heights and East L.A.

One of the big early battles came in 1985, when Gov. George Deukmejian ordered the California Department of Corrections to build a prison in Los Angeles County. Under the priest’s guidance, Mothers of East Los Angeles started to fight the proposed construction. Members passionately brought to the public’s attention how dangerous a prison really could be existing side-by-side in a mixed residential-industrial community. And when legislators voted on the measure in the summer of 1991, it came up four votes short.

Then there were two separate efforts to put in industrial furnaces to burn hazardous toxic waste. Although the process for one would produce 60,000 gallons of cyanide, hexavalent chromium and other hazardous materials daily, Chem-Clear officials claimed the proposed Vernon plant “would do nothing to endanger the environment of the public.”

Opponents, including Mothers of East Los Angeles, did their research to show that the site was way too close to schools, hospitals and homes. Both efforts failed.

And in a three-year tug-of-war with the City of Vernon to build a 943-megawatt power plant, the pastor led street demonstrations to show the community’s resolve. The Los Angeles Times said the political and public relations campaign by Vernon infuriated Msgr. Moretta and the parishioners he helped organize. “We have been sticking together, showing the City of Vernon that their money and their power don’t always count,” he told the paper.

Vernon abandoned the huge power plant proposal for a 330-megawatt facility, promising it would be the country’s “cleanest burning natural gas power plant.”

The outgoing but soft-spoken clergyman was born in what used to be called “South-Central” Los Angeles on Manchester Boulevard — not far from the flock he’s led for three decades at Resurrection, celebrating baptisms with young families and giving the last rites to sick seniors, hearing the confessions of second-graders and gang-bangers.

He studied theology at St. John’s Seminary at the time of Vatican II, a priest now for 45 years with a bedrock sense of Gospel values like fairness and justice. He has not only ministered to the working poor, the disenfranchised and the immigrant, but also marched with them in protests against city halls as well as national corporations.  

And the fire still burns against a car battery recycler and toxic polluter of his community.

“As a priest, I couldn’t sit by,” he said. “I could not sit by and just hold my hands and not become involved in an issue like this, something as severe as this. I mean, you hear these experts and doctors on lead poisoning. And lead poisoning is very easy for children to get. And now there’s the arsenic emissions Exide never told us about.

“The reason I stay here is, frankly, it’s because of the goodness of the people,” pointed out Msgr. Moretta. “I get so angry to hear people put down the East Side. They’re just very, very, very good people.”