EXIDE VERNON UPDATE: Prospect of Exide lead smelter getting clearance to keep operating worries neighbors, watchdog group
Molly Peterson | KPCCÂ Â
A state regulator says California is close to cutting a deal with Exide Technologies that would permit the company to keep recycling batteries in Vernon. In April the state had ordered Exide to close the plant because of health threats posed by toxic materials. Â A judge allowed Exide to stay open while it fought the closure order. Now the prospect of the plant permanently reopening worries neighbors and a watchdog group.
State regulators were supposed to face off against Exide TuesdayÂ before an administrative judge. But Rizgar Ghazi, head of permitting atÂ the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the state asked to postpone the hearing,Â “because weâ€™re close to finalizing a plan that will address all of our concerns.”
That news makes Doelores Mejia angry. Mejia sits outside the public libraryÂ in Boyle Heights, watchingÂ kids come to check out books. Regulators haveÂ warnedÂ herÂ L.A.Â neighborhood, and the cities of Bell and Maywood, that Exideâ€™s airborne pollution raises their risk of cancer.
“Theyâ€™ve told us what arsenic does to us, and lead,” she said, noting the threat to children, the elderly, and the disabled. “Itâ€™s like weâ€™re a laboratory here.”
Mejia wants more action. She points out that the South Coast Air Quality Management District found another violation at Exide this summer, whenÂ an apparent fireÂ damaged pollution controls.
The state’s move to close Exide stemmed in part from a March findingÂ Â by the South Coast Air Quality management District said that airborneÂ arsenic raised cancer risks for workers in Vernon and people living in Boyle Heights, Maywood and Bell. When the DTSC ordered Exideâ€™s Vernon plant shuttered in April, it relied in part on that decision, and in part on the companyâ€™s own discovery of degraded stormwater pipes.
Meanwhile,Â toxic regulators have launched a new investigation for lead and arsenic inÂ Vernon, in the area around the Exide plant. On a recent day on 26th Street, a man wearing rubber gloves ran a Eureka hand-held vacuum cleaner along the sidewalk, gathering dust samples. The dust will be tested for toxic materials; the results are due in November.
Exideâ€™s supposed to pay for the testing. But the companyâ€™s overall finances are in disarray. Exide filed to reorganize under Chapter 11 in June, and creditors have been lining up in a Delaware court.
In court documents, Exide Chief Financial OfficerÂ Philip DamaskaÂ pointed toÂ the dispute with California regulators over the Vernon plant and Wal-Martâ€™s decision to source automotive batteries from Exideâ€™s rival as key setbacks necessitating reorganization under Chapter 11.
Liza Tucker ofÂ Consumer Watchdog says Exide has indicated to the bankruptcy court “that it wants permission to walk away from its toxic assets, essentially abandoning them.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency and 10 statesÂ Â — including California –Â Â have moved to block Exideâ€™s request. The government isÂ arguing in the publicâ€™s interest, saidÂ Bob Rasmussen, dean of USCâ€™s Law School and a bankruptcy law expert.
“If you sell some of these things youâ€™ve got to tell us about it. And it doesnâ€™t relieve you of liability,” he said. “Moreover, the person who buys the property is also going to be liable for the cleanup costs.”
The stateÂ isÂ determined not only to clean up existing contamination in Vernon but also to make Exide pay for it, insists the DTSC’s Rizgar Ghazi.
“We donâ€™t want California to hold the bag,” he said.
So that taxpayers arenâ€™t left holding the bag, state law gives regulators the power to require companies like Exide toÂ set asideÂ money to clean upÂ anyÂ contaminated property. ButÂ Ghazi admits that the stateÂ rarely usesÂ that power; he acknowledged that the state did not ask Exide to put up money to pay for previous corrective actions.
“The DTSC should have done it all along,” said Consumer Watchdog’s Tucker, adding that regulatorsÂ should also make companies handling toxic materialsÂ set asideÂ money in case theyÂ shut downÂ â€“ thatâ€™s state law, too. Exide has guaranteed around $10 millionÂ for cleanup if its Vernon plant closes. That figureâ€™s based on a 23-year old plan. Tucker says upgrades since then meanÂ aÂ real cleanup would take tens of millions more.
atchdogâ€™s Liza Tucker show that Exide has provided a form of surety called a payment bond. Those records are incomplete, however; the state was unable to provide specifics about the mechanisms by which more than 100 other properties guarantee cleanup costs.
DTSCâ€™s Ghazi says Exideâ€™s guarantee has grown to accommodate inflation-adjusted costs. But the cleanup plan the state has on file is 23 years old. Thatâ€™s one reason Liza Tucker says the stateâ€™s cleanup guarantees are inadequate.
” There is a slag pit filled with really really toxic lead,” she said. “Itâ€™s never been properly sealed off. There are a number of features at that location that are not included in what that money is supposed to cover.”
TuckerÂ recalls one instanceÂ whenÂ an insolvent company failed to pay for cleaning up a West Covina landfill.Â NearlyÂ a decade after the landfill closed, the stateâ€™s on the hook for $15 million in cleanup costsÂ â€“ and the bill keeps rising.
RizgarÂ GhaziÂ saysÂ the stateÂ isÂ seeking moreÂ moneyÂ from Exide as part of any deal. Tucker says thatâ€™s a good step. ButÂ she says her group will be watching to make sure the state follows through.