EXIDE VERNON BREAKING NEWS / MEDIA ROUNDUP: FINALLY! â€” After decades of toxic pollution and contamination, Exide to permanently close violation-ridden Vernon lead smelter to avoid criminal charges in deal reached with U.S. Attorney
Under the deal, Exide will acknowledge criminal conduct, including the illegal storage and transportation of hazardous waste, but will avoid prosecution in exchange for shutting down, demolishing and cleaning its 15-acre battery recycling plant about five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, according to a person involved in the negotiations.
The facility, one of only two battery recycling plants west of the Rocky Mountains, has stoked outrage among community groups and elected officials for its long history of violating air pollution standards and hazardous waste laws.
The closure marks a major victory for residents of the working-class neighborhood near the plant, who had raised concerns about pollution and demanded action against Exide. A 2013 report released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found Exide’s arsenic emissions endangered the health of 110,000 people who live near the plant.
A company spokeswoman reached late Wednesday did not have immediate comment.
Over decades of operation, the facility has polluted the soil beneath it with high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic metals, state environmental records show. It has fouled groundwater, released battery acid onto roads and contaminated homes and yards in surrounding communities with lead emissions.
Hazardous waste from the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon has leaked from trailers onto public highways in what a state environmental inspector called an “ongoing problem” that “needs to be addressed immediately” in 2013.
The agreement with federal officials is intended to allow Exide to continue operating as a viable company â€” it recycles batteries at facilities in Missouri and Indiana â€” so that it can pay for cleanup of the Vernon facility and surrounding neighborhoods, according to the person involved with the negotiations. The Georgia company, one of the world’s largest lead-acid battery recyclers and manufacturers, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has filed plans to to emerge as a reorganized company. A hearing in the bankruptcy case is scheduled for March 27.
A key factor driving the agreement in the case, which was forged during negotiations in recent days, was a condition of the company’s reorganization plan that said the company could be liquidated if there was criminal prosecution.
Since 2012, the company has closed or halted lead recycling operations in Pennsylvania and Texas in the face of pressure from regulators and surrounding residents.
Exide will be held to an agreement made last fall with state regulators that requires the company to set aside $38.6 million for closure and cleanup of the facility and to place $9 million in a trust fund to clean lead-tainted soil from surrounding homes. Those payments will be expedited under the agreement with federal officials.
If Exide violates terms of the agreement in the next 10 years, it could face criminal charges.
The wide-ranging federal criminal investigation into the company â€” first disclosed publicly in August â€” involved its air emissions and transportation of hazardous waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation were also involved in the investigation.
The Vernon plant, which can melt tens of thousands of car batteries a day to provide a source of lead for new batteries, has sat idle for the last year because it could not comply with air quality standards.
The facility had been allowed to operate for decades with only a temporary permit from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
The facily has operated in Vernon since 1922 and was taken over by Exide in 2000. The company has repeatedly been cited for violations of environmental regulations by state and local officials in recent years.
Following public outcry, Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed a law requiring regulators to either issue Exide a full permit by the end of 2015 or force the facility to close. Toxic substances department officials had said recently they were reviewing the company’s application.
â€œWe have reached a deal with Exide that will result in the immediate and permanent closure of the battery recycling plant,â€ said spokesman for the U.S. Attorneyâ€™s office Thom Mrozek. â€œIt’s a complicated deal, but we think it will ensure that money is available to pay for tens of millions of dollars in cleanup efforts.â€
Under the settlement, Exide Technologies will avoid federal criminal liability.
“The agreement to close the plant is the best outcome for the health of exposed residents. It is the best outcome for society,” L.A. County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement.
Last August, a federal grand jury began investigating Exide over air emissions and the transportation of hazardous materials. The company revealed the investigation in a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Exide sought protection from creditors in a Delaware bankruptcy court nearly 2 years ago. In its most recent public comments, the company announced it intended to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the end of March.
“Exide operated for too long with a temporary permit and that is something that should have never happened. And it certainly shouldnâ€™t happen again,” Solis said.
A spokeswoman for Exide reached Wednesday night said the company would not confirm a settlement, and would offer no comment.
Neighbors to the plant in Boyle Heights, Vernon and Maywood have sought to shutter the plant ever since a study released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District revealed significantly elevated cancer risk for more than 100,000 people living and working near the plant.
Exide, one of two lead battery smelters west of the Mississippi, has long insisted it was working diligently to reopen. But last week, AQMD board members okayed tighter restrictions for air emissions from Exide and Quemetco, located in the City of Industry.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control is overseeing cleanup of properties around Exide.Â As of Monday, DTSC contractors have cleaned up 38 of 216 homes north and south of the plant, with 34 homes awaiting test results, 77 homes in line for cleanup, and 54 homes awaiting initial tests.
This story has been updated.
KABC LOS ANGELES
Exide To Shut Down Vernon Recycling Plant, Pay $50 million For Clean-Up
The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday the permanent closure of a battery recycling plant in Vernon operated by Exide Technologies. The company will also pay $50 million to clean up the site and nearby neighborhoods affected by dangerous toxins released from its facility.
“The reign of toxic lead ends today,” acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura said in a statement. “After more than nine decades of ongoing lead contamination in the City of Vernon, neighborhoods can now start to breathe easier.”
The battery recycling plant has sat idle for a year due to major legal and environmental problems.
The State Department of Toxic Substances Control found that Exide had been releasing cancer-causing arsenic into the air for years. The facility’s failing pipes also leaked water contaminated with hazardous wastes into the soil below the facility. Authorities found elevated levels of lead in the soil of homes and a school near the Vernon plant.
Exide had two choices after these discoveries: shut down or face criminal charges, federal prosecutors said.
As part of the deal, Exide acknowledged it illegally stored, disposed and transported hazardous waste. The company also admitted that it produced hazardous wastes, including lead, cadmium, arsenic and volatile organic compounds.
The facility is expected to be demolished and cleaned up.
“The agreement to close the plant is the best outcome for the health of exposed residents. It is the best outcome for society,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents Vernon.
Federal prosecutors said the final agreement will cost the company about $100 million to comply, including losses incurred from recent improvements to the facility. About $9 million will go into trust fund for the clean-up of 216 residences in Boyle Heights and Maywood.
In exchange, Exide will not face criminal charges.
“Without the NPA (Non-Prosecution Agreement), prosecutors believe, Exide would cease to exist as a viable company and responsibility to clean up toxic sites like the recycling plant in Vernon would revert to governmental agencies,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Exide operates several facilities across the country. In 2013, the company filed for bankruptcy.
If the agreement is not followed, the government could prosecute Exide for any crimes committed.
CBS LOS ANGELES
Exide Recycling Plant Ordered To Close Immediately Under Agreement With USÂ Attorney
The agreement, which wasÂ reached Wednesday night, states that Exide Technologies on South Indiana Street between East 26th Street and Bandini Boulevard willÂ close andÂ pay millions for its cleanup.
TheÂ controversial plantÂ has been cited multiple times by the community forÂ violating air pollution and hazardous waste laws.
â€œThe United States Attorneyâ€™s Office entered into the NPA (Non-Prosecution Agreement) because negotiations with the bankrupt company revealed that even the threat of a criminal prosecution would almost certainly force the liquidation of the company,â€ the U.S. Attorney said in a statement Thursday. â€œThe NPA opens the door to new funding for the company, which employs thousands of workers in the United States and around the world, and ensures that money will be available to pay for the clean-up ofÂ the Vernon site and several other toxic sites around the United States.â€
ExideÂ will have to set aside $38.6 million for the closure and cleanup of the 15-acre site and an additional $9 million for the cleanup of the soil around area homes.
The companyÂ also faces numerous lawsuits, including one that alleges a number of nearby residents died due to the pollution.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda SolisÂ applauded the agreement saying it was the â€œbest outcomeâ€ for the health of the residents as well as the society.
â€œBut this is not the end of the story. The plant may be closed for good, but the cleanup is just beginning,â€ she said in a statement. â€œWe need to make sure we have the funds to restore homes to safety and to remove contaminated soil in our parks and other areas where lead and other toxins have accumulated. Displaced Exide workers must be trained and placed in new jobs.â€