“The question the communities of the Southern Greater Los Angeles area for 30 years have been asking is why have the state agencies allowed Exide to pollute the children, the neighborhoods of our communities with lead, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals again and again over 30 years?”

Msgr. John Moretta spoke from the steps of Resurrection Church, the parish he’s led for 31 years in Boyle Heights, addressing a Sept. 18 rally, at which he and others urged Gov. Jerry Brown to sign two bills that would require hazardous waste facilities, like Exide Technologies, to fully comply with federal and state laws.

The rally, which drew about 50 people, also featured short speeches by State Senator Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and L.A. City Councilmember José Huizar (District 14), along with local residents. 

“This should never have happened,” Msgr. Moretta declared. “It’s unconscionable.”

More than 30 violations and fines

The story of Exide Technologies’ troubles dates to 1981, when a lead recycling battery plant opened in Vernon, a tiny incorporated city about five miles south of Los Angeles, with toxic regulators first finding high traces of lead near the facility in 1999.

A year later Exide Technologies bought the plant. The Georgia-based company was fined $40,000 by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for improper storage of used lead-acid batteries in 2003.

The violations and fines of Exide by DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) now total more than 30.  

 In 2007, a study found that Exide had deposited 1,500 pounds of lead into the Los Angeles River watershed. Two years later, lead sludge from the battery recycler was found in storm water retention basins.

In 2013, Exide’s own health risk assessment indicated the plant posed a cancer risk to its workers. And state officials suspended operations there because of emissions of arsenic that posed a health risk to 110,000 residents in nearby communities. Nevertheless, the facility soon was able to reopen.

There were pipeline spills of lead, arsenic and cadmium. A fire broke out on the premises. Minor breakdowns of all kinds in the plant continued through the summer. Exide was ordered to shut down. But last October, DTSC reversed itself, letting the plant stay open, while AQMD lawyers petitioned to close it.

In early March 2014, lead was found in the soil around Exide, including at the Volunteers of America Salazar Park Head Start pre-school center. Neighbors began getting blood tests for lead. On May 22, the EPA told Exide its lead emissions violated federal law. State regulators give the facility 30 days to correct its operating permit problems. Again Exide shut down, laying off more than 120 employees at the Vernon Plant.

The company has also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

While Los Angeles County supervisors criticized the “piecemeal” cleanup around Exide, on July 10 AQMD gave the embattled battery recycling plant one more chance to clean up its act, to operate without risking the heath and lives of nearby residents. The state agency said the plant could reopen if it installed arsenic-emissions-control equipment and also didn’t allow lead-contaminated dust to be released into the air during improvements.

Meanwhile, there was one more development last month: It was learned a federal grand jury was investigating Exide’s Vernon plant for the Department of Justice.

‘Repeated’ system failures

 At the Resurrection demonstration Sept. 18, speakers urged Gov. Brown to sign Senate Bill 712 which, in fact, was aimed specifically at the Vernon plant, giving new regulatory powers to DTSC, and Senate Bill 812 which would, in turn, increase the accountability and transparency of the agency.

“Today we are calling on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign critically important legislation to protect the health of our residents from pollution,” said Sen. de Leon, who authored SB 812. “Repeated failures by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has shown that our current system for handling hazardous waste is broken.

 “Communities such as Boyle Heights, this community that I’m very proud to represent, and Southeast Los Angeles and many others across the state are on the receiving end of the pollution — the pollution in the air, the pollution on our land and the pollution in our water.”

Councilmember Huizar said he was pleased that the City Council supported both measures. “And here, particularly in Boyle Heights that is one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the city, when you have all the freeways that crisscross here and you have industries that surround this community, we are the most impacted when DTSC does not do its job.

“It’s incomprehensible that they would allow Exide to operate under a temporary permit for 30 years,” he stressed. “Anyone else would have been booted out and told, ‘Get your act together.’”

A woman held up a placard with the words, “Eviction Notice: Exide Toxic $ Out Now.” A man shouted “What do we want?” with other demonstrators exclaiming, “Shut Exide down!”

Ingrid Brostrom, senior attorney at the Oakland-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, noted that last October DTSC reported it had “no standardized criteria” for permitting hazardous waste facilities in California.

“It is no accident that Exide is located in Vernon,” she said. “It is no accident that Cybertech is located near Los Nietos. It is no accident that Waste Management hazardous facility is located in Kettlemen City. These all share characteristics of being the most vulnerable communities in California.”

Momentum ‘on our side’

After the rally, Msgr. Moretta told The Tidings that, for his first 25 years as pastor of Resurrection, he wasn’t aware how serious the toxic pollution problem really was in his parish — or else he and others would have started fighting it a long time ago. He said it actually came to light when a gentleman in nearby Maywood seven years ago noted dust on his car — lead dust.

“Since then it’s been a long fight,” Resurrection’s 73-year-old pastor said. “But the thing that encourages me, frankly, is that the momentum has been on our side. All the elected officials have always been on our side. So that’s very encouraging. And all the civic groups have made resolutions to stop it.”

Still, after a moment he cautioned that the DTSC holds the cards: “They’re the only ones who can give the final permit or not to Exide. And we hope that very shortly they will make a decision, one way or the other.”

Msgr. Moretta has always seen the protracted struggle against the Vernon plant — which, when operating, recycles 23,000 to 41,000 batteries daily, producing 100,000 to 120,000 tons of lead per year — as basically a moral issue.

“Well, it’s certainly immoral to have 100,000 people put at cancer risk,” he said. “I mean, that’s outrageous. And that’s not my figure. That comes from the health risks the company themselves and the AQMD found just from the air problem.

“So to me, as a pastor here, I could not just sit quiet. I feel it’s a very urgent thing.”

The second part of this article will look at how children growing up in Boyle Heights think the toxic pollutants have and will affect their own lives.