In 2011, 13-year-old Cynthia Abuede, an eighth-grader at Resurrection School in Boyle Heights, appeared in a documentary commissioned by California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) called “The Right to Breathe.” The film derived its emotional impact from the personal stories from people like Cynthia, who held up her drawing of the lead battery recycler Exide Technologies and her sister nearby coughing with asthma in the film.
“She was born with it, but throughout the years it’s gotten worse,” she said. “I mean, Exide comes with ‘bad cons’ and ‘good cons.’ So what can we do about it? The good thing is they’re recycling batteries and we’re trying to be more in tune with the eco system. But then the bad is if they’re causing people to be sick and even get cancer.”
Cynthia believes her sister’s worsening condition is a direct result of the lead emissions from the plant on South Indiana Street. And last year, the teenager developed the potential debilitating and even life-threatening condition — where a person’s airways narrow, swell and produce extra mucus — herself.
“I got it when I was 12,” she reported. “During softball season we practice outside, and we’re closer to downtown. And when they condition us to do cardio [exercises], you panic because you can’t breathe. It’s, like, scary.”
Justin Chavez, another eighth-grader at Resurrection, is aware of how his older brother’s asthmatic condition has been aggravated. “When we go outside and play basketball,” says Justin, “he’s constantly having breathing problems and has to take puffs from his inhaler pump. I’ve noticed it a lot.
“And even me, like, I get this really sharp, sharp pain in my lungs. And I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with the air, ’cause I get it when I’m doing stuff outside.
“In sixth grade I remember it first happening when I was jogging at [Ramon] Garcia Park with my cousin. I had to slow down for a little bit ’cause it was really paining me. And I was like panicking. I didn’t know what was going on. It absolutely scared me, yeah.”
Recently, Cynthia, Justin and 14 other junior high students assembled in a bungalow that’s soon to become a library at the parochial school on Opal Street. They wanted to talk about the struggle Resurrection Parish and other East L.A. communities have had for at least seven years with toxic lead and arsenic pollution from Exide Technologies in nearby Vernon.
The Georgia-based company’s plant has a history of illegal emissions, storage problems and spills, along with fines and mandatory shutdowns, going back to 2000. In 2007, a study found that Exide had deposited 1,500 pounds of lead into the Los Angeles River watershed. In 2013, Exide’s own health-risk assessment noted that the plant posed a cancer risk to its workers. That same year, state officials temporarily shut operations down because of emissions of arsenic posing a health risk to 110,000 residents in nearby communities.
In March of this year, investigators found lead in the soil around Exide, including at the Volunteers of America Salazar Park Head Start pre-school center. And while the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and was shut down again, in July the AQMD gave the battery recycling plant another chance to clean up its act and reopen.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have reformed and given more teeth to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to regulate polluters like Exide, which has been allowed to operate for decades without a full permit.
Resurrection’s junior high students know all about Exide’s embattled history. Their teachers and principal (see sidebar) have regularly and pointedly explained the issues and keep them abreast of setbacks and temporary victories. Some kids have attended heated town hall meetings and street rallies, protesting Exide’s presence in their communities.
Encouraged by pastor Msgr. John Moretta, Alfredo Montesdeoca, 13, went to a town hall meeting last year. “I saw many people come and talk to the [AQMD] commissioners and say to them what we want and what’s best for us,” said the eighth grade student. “So I think it was really great to stand up for ourselves. I know recycling and having jobs are good. But I think it’s just terrible for us, for our health. I think it’s better to save people’s lives than to just have people work and have money.”
Seventh-grader Francisco Hernandez, 12, appreciated that people at the meeting spoke up. He wondered aloud whether Exide knew “that they’re hurting other people, giving them asthma and cancer,” then answered his own query: “They must have known how bad it was.”
‘Getting even worse’
All of the students — boys in short-sleeve white shirts, black ties and khaki pants, girls wearing plaid skirts, white blouses and saddle shoes — had opinions to offer. “The more I learn, I see it’s getting even worse, that Exide is making our community polluted,” said Blanca Machuca, 12, a seventh-grader. “Maybe our generation is going to start coming out with more diseases?”
Oscar Jackson, a 12-year-old seventh-grader who has asthma, came to Resurrection just last year. “I had to use my inhaler a few times because the quality of the air was so bad,” he said. “You can’t really breathe and then you need your pump. Now it’s better, but I’ve been wheezing a little bit.”
For fellow asthmatic seventh-grader Camille Marin, 12, every day outside at Resurrection is different. “There’s a few days when I’ll need my inhaler, and then there’s a few days when I’m fine,” she pointed out. “Sometimes it gets worse when I’m outside.”
Bryanne Garibalda, 13, is more concerned for her mother. “It does scare me, because my mom, she sometimes has headaches and trouble breathing,” the eighth-grader noted. “And it scares me, ’cause I don’t want her to, like, get sick. She thinks that some part of it has to do with the air.”
One of the last hands up was Brenda Candido’s. The 13-year-old eighth-grader thought it was genuinely unjust to allow a toxic polluter like Exide to keep operating in her community where there is so much pollution already from intersecting freeways. (The East Los Angeles Interchange is one of the busiest freeway connections in the world.)
“They wouldn’t have Exide in Beverly Hills,” Brenda observed. “Our politicians should establish laws about it. They could stop it. Because if they don’t, there’s going to be even more people who get strong diseases. And people can even die from it.”
A principal’s concern for her students’ health
“We’re appalled at the fact that this company, Exide, has been operating without permits. You know, no one stands up for our kids. And so we are trying to educate our kids to be leaders of tomorrow. So they are well aware of the situation. They really take ownership in their community, and they want this to stop.
“We have kids with asthma. It’s sad to see that at such a young age. We’re right in the heart of the East L.A. Interchange where all the pollution just accumulates. We do have inhalers that parents drop off with us in the office. And, especially on hot days, we don’t have kids playing outside, because we know this is going to aggravate their conditions.
“It does concern me that some of these pollutants and lead contaminants in the air do have an effect on the cognitive skills of kids. Therefore, they cannot process information as quickly as other kids who don’t have this in their bodies. It doesn’t give those students the ability to excel at a faster rate.
“So we make accommodations for them. Our teachers are trained to work with students who have disabilities. We accommodate their curriculum.”
—Angelica Figueroa, principal, Resurrection School