EXIDE VERNON UPDATE: Los Angeles area residents affected by contamination from Exide lead smelter say slow cleanup adds insult to injury; Residents wary of DTSC which they believe dropped the ball on regulating Exide with existing laws to protect residents from decades of lead, arsenic and benzine contamination
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LA residents affected by pollution from shuttered battery plant say slow cleanup adds insult to injury
Attorneys with the NAACP filed a federal class action lawsuit last week on behalf of residents of Flint, Michigan affected by lead contaminated water.Â While national attention has been focused on the Flint crisis since late last year, another environmental disaster in Los Angeles has been unfolding for much longer â€“ nine decades in fact â€“ and most Americans arenâ€™t aware of it.
For years, a battery recycling plant most recently managed by Exide Technologies leached lead and other carcinogens into the soil, air and water in surrounding residential neighborhoods. Residents say the companyâ€™s shutdown took too long and that cleanup efforts are also sluggish. Many of them are taking matters into their own hands. Larry Buhl has more from Los Angeles.
Youth activistsÂ for Communities for a Better Environment are door knocking in the city of Bell, California, southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Theyâ€™re telling residents to fill out access agreement forms giving consent to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to analyze their soil for lead contamination. And theyâ€™re informing them about the most recent developments in the cleanup.
Activists in the area were successful in getting the Department of Justice to shut down the plant last year after it became clear that Exide, and the companies managing the battery recycling plant for nearly ninety years, had been polluting the ground, water and air with lead and other hazardous substances.
Closing the plant was only the first battle. Activists say the cleanup process has been slow and the communication about progress has been less than clear, despite a packet of information from the California Department of Toxic Substances or DTSC. Thatâ€™s why environmental campaigners are knocking on neighborhood doors.
â€œPeople either donâ€™t trust the government, donâ€™t have faith in it or donâ€™t have sufficient information,â€ says Milton Hernandez, Youth Program Coordinator for Communities for a Better Environment. â€œThe packetsÂ thatÂ the Department of Toxic Substances Control created donâ€™t really explain the harm that Exide did orÂ the danger it put all these people in.â€
The residents of these largely blue collar and Latino neighborhoods near the closed Exide plant have good reason not to trust the government.
Government regulators fined Exide for releasing dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere until the DOJ shut the plant down in March 2015. But neither the company nor the government warned residents that they may have been exposed to lead and known carcinogens, like arsenic and benzene, for decades.
Residents blame the DTSC for being too slow in its efforts to crack down on the company. The department levied only seven fines on Exide over two decades, took no effort to shut the plant down, and has admitted that it dropped the ball on regulating the company.
â€œThis company completely disregarded this community and knew that it was operating illegally for over thirty years,â€ explains Mauro Barrera, a volunteer with Youth for Environmental Justice whoseÂ family lives in the area. â€œThis agency that was supposed to protect us was fining this company. And this company paid those fines instead of fixing its own equipment, instead of complying with the law. Â And it keptÂ doing this, it keptÂ constantly polluting us, literally poisoning us.
Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown set aside $176 million to jump start the cleanup effort. But area residents like Joe Gonzalez are wary that the DTSC is in charge of the clean up.
â€œWe have to look into a way as a community to get this $176 million dollars out of the hands of the culprits of this contamination,â€ Gonzalez says. â€œThatâ€™s not only Exide. The co-conspirators are also the DTSC, they are the agency who admitted that they failed.â€
The interim director of public health for LA County has said that lead contamination could affect up to 10,000 homes within a 1.75-mile radius of the shuttered Exide plant. And a recent analysis by the California Department of Public Health found slightly elevated levels of lead in children living within two miles of Exide, but it didnâ€™t determine what the source was. It was confirmation of what many residents feared: that theyâ€™re not safe, and the government still doesnâ€™t know how unsafe they are.
In presenting the findings at a recent public hearing, the deputy secretary for science and health at the California Environmental Protection Agency, Gina Solomon, cautioned thatÂ the studyâ€™sÂ focus was too narrow to extrapolate to the plantâ€™s surrounding area.
â€œThe conclusion from this investigation is, that although there is evidence of soil contamination from Exide and DTSC is very rightly focused on cleaning up that soil contamination, the news is somewhat reassuring on blood leads in that we didnâ€™t see a dramatic increase in blood lead in young kids in that area thatâ€™s significantly above what we might otherwise expect to see in other parts of LA. That doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s okay. And it also doesnâ€™t mean that there isnâ€™t something going on,â€ Solomon points out.
The area has a new advocate in Hilda Solis. The former U.S. secretary of labor is now an LA County supervisor. Sheâ€™s set aside $2 million in county funds to create small teams that can quickly test properties for lead.
Residents worry that the funds wonâ€™t be enough. And they point out similarities to Flint, Michigan. In both regions, low-income people of color suffer from lead contamination while public officials respond with indifference.
Burned By Slow Government Response To A Polluter, Residents Mistrust Cleanup Efforts
When residents donâ€™t trust the company who poisoned their water and soil, and they donâ€™t trust the government agencies mandated to stop the company, theyâ€™ll either ignore everything and hope for the best, or theyâ€™ll take matters into their ownÂ hands.
Both reactions are in abundance in Vernon, California near the site of a now-shuttered battery recycling plant now owned by Exide Technologies. Exide and the plantâ€™s previous owners knowingly leached lead and other carcinogens into the soil, air and water in surrounding residential neighborhoods, a problem made much worse by inadequate governmentÂ oversight.
State regulatorsÂ repeatedly warnedÂ Exide Technologies, which ran the Vernon battery smelting facility since 2000, and its previous owners that the plant was releasing dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere. Exide responded only by paying fines and continuing business asÂ usual.
The fines were small considering the scope of the damage.Â AÂ Los Angeles TimesÂ investigationÂ found that, over more than 15 years, Exide paid $869,000 in penalties and that â€œmost of the fines were assessed in the last twoÂ years.â€
The Department of Justice shut down the plant last year, but it hardly brought relief or closure to residents who said the shutdown took too long and that regulatorâ€™s warnings to Exide carried no authority or urgency. And neither the company nor the government warned residents that they may have been ingesting lead and known carcinogens like arsenic and benzene forÂ decades.
Exide inherited the Vernon plant by acquiringÂ GNBÂ Technologies in 2000, but lead smelting had been continuous at the site sinceÂ 1922.
In 1999, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) found high levels of lead in the sediment at the bottom of the storm water retention pond and required the plantâ€™s operators to clean it up.Â A 2013 analysis of air qualityÂ found that Exide may have elevated the cancer risk for 110,000 Los Angeles residents. That same year theÂ LAÂ Times found that,Â 252,000 people may faceÂ chronic health hazards from ExideÂ emissions.
The plant was closed temporarily in 2013, before theÂ DOJÂ closed it permanently lastÂ year.
The interim director of public health forÂ LAÂ County has said that lead contamination could affect up to 10,000 homes within a 1.75-mile radius of the ExideÂ plant.
Earlier this month, anÂ analysisÂ released by the state Department of Public Health found elevated levels of lead in the blood of children living near the Exide plant.Â Exposure to elevated levels of lead can cause birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer and other chronic healthÂ issues.
In April, California Governor Jerry Brown allocated $176 million to decontaminate the surrounding neighborhoods. But thatâ€™s a fraction of what residents think it will take. And they donâ€™t expect the money to be used wisely or effectively, given the stateâ€™s history of handling the plant with less than an ironÂ fist.
One evening in early May, I met Youth for Environmental Justice activists, part of Communities for a Better Environment, as they were gathering to door-knock in neighborhoods surrounding the now-closed ExideÂ plant.
Their mission was to find residents who havenâ€™t filled the access agreement giving consent to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to analyze their soil for lead contamination. And they intended to inform residents on the most recent developments in theÂ cleanup.
The first battle for citizens here was getting the Exide plant shut down. They succeeded in doing that last year. But the cleanup process is bringing more hurdles, like residents who ignore anything they receive in the mail from theÂ DTSC.
Milton Hernandez-Nimatuj, the Youth Program Coordinator for Communities for a Better Environment, told me that many residents in these mostly working class and Latino neighborhoods in southeast Los Angeles County either donâ€™t trust the government, donâ€™t have faith in it or donâ€™t have sufficientÂ information.
â€œThe packet sent by theÂ DTSCÂ doesnâ€™t explain the harm that Exide did and the danger that Exide put people in,â€ Hernandez-Nimatuj says. â€œAnd many (residents) now ignore information that comes from regulators. We want to make sure we follow up with the committee members and with the department to make sure they follow up with the communityÂ members.â€
That residents donâ€™t trust government regulators like theÂ DTSCÂ and Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is not surprising, HernandezÂ says.
For over a decade, regulators fined Exide for releasing dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere until the Department of Justice shut the plant down in MarchÂ 2015.
Residents blame theÂ DTSCÂ for being too slow in its efforts to crack down on the company.Â TheÂ DTSCÂ levied only seven fines on Exide over two decades and took no effort to shut down the plant, and has admitted that it dropped the ball on regulatingÂ Exide.
â€œAfter more than nine decades of ongoing lead contamination in the City of Vernon, neighborhoods can now start to breathe easier,â€Â said actingÂ U.S.Â Attorney for the Central District of California Stephanie Yonekura in a statement.
Exide was ordered to pay $50 million toward the cleanupÂ effort.
But residents point to the part of Yonekuraâ€™s statement thatâ€™s easy to overlook: nine decades. It took nineÂ decades.
Mauro Barrera, a volunteer with Youth for Environmental Justice, confides that heâ€™s angry about the fact he and his family lived in a neighborhood near the plant for years without knowing theÂ dangers.
â€œThis agency that was supposed to protect us was fining the company. And instead of complying with the law, it kept constantly polluting, literally poisoningÂ us.â€
Lisette Ruiz, another volunteer, says that few homes have been tested and the that have been tested are showing leadÂ contamination.
â€œPeople have been living without knowing. I grew up in this neighborhood and just seeing how many homes had kids playing there. Itâ€™s just heartbreaking.Â â€œ
Both residents and area activists say that even though the state and Exide are paying for cleanup efforts, they canâ€™t be trusted to do it thoroughly. After all, the plant had been polluting, as Yonekura admitted, for nineÂ decades.
At a recent public hearing, Joe Gonzalez, a 60-year-old resident who lives near the Exide plant, didnâ€™t believe a representative from theÂ DTSCÂ andÂ AQMD, who said the cleanup effort was going smoothly.
â€œWe have to look into a way as a community to get this $176 million out of the hands of the culprits of this contamination. Thatâ€™s not only Exide. The co-conspirators are also theÂ DTSC, who admitted verbatim, â€˜we screwed up weâ€™re sorry,â€™ and now they have $176 million dollars. Since the last weekend how many access slips has theÂ DTSCÂ collected? It doesnâ€™t seem to be moving veryÂ fast.â€
Battery recyclers, which aim to recover valuable lead inside batteries, have moved operations outside theÂ U.S.Â due to tightening regulations. Many of them ship batteries illegally toÂ Mexico.
Exide is one of 14 battery smelters still operating in the United States, though it is under fire in communities where it operates.Â A Los Angeles Times investigation of Exideâ€™s plantsÂ Â found that, between 2010 and 2013, seven Exide operations have been linked to ambient airborne lead levels that posed a healthÂ risk.
The area has a new advocate in Hilda Solis. The formerÂ U.S.Â secretary of labor became anÂ LAÂ County supervisor in 2014. Sheâ€™s set aside $2 million in county funds to create small teams that can quickly test properties forÂ lead.
Residents worry that the funds wonâ€™t be enough.Â And they worry that regulators still donâ€™t appreciate the scope of theÂ damage.
Los Angeles radio journalist Warren Olney has called Exide â€œone of Americaâ€™s worst cases of environmental pollutionâ€ and has pointed out similarities to Flint, Michigan. In both regions, low-income people of color suffer from lead contamination while public officials responded for too long withÂ indifference.
â€œMaybe if we called ourselves â€˜Boyle Heights Ranchâ€™ we would have gotten more attention,â€ says Monsignor John Moretta, of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, who has been a key organizer in fighting Exide. The â€˜Ranchâ€™ he says, is Porter Ranch, the mostly white, mostly affluent community abutting the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon facility on the other end of Los AngelesÂ County.
Itâ€™s apples and oranges, Moretta admits, but the fact that the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak was stopped after four months, while Exide polluted the air, soil, and water in surrounding neighborhoods for years, is not lost onÂ Moretta.
â€œIâ€™ve lived here for 33 years and I didnâ€™t know about the dangers until a few years ago,â€ Moretta tellsÂ DeSmog.
Moretta says he worries, like many residents do, that the tests being done wonâ€™t measure the full humanÂ costs.
â€œBlood tests wonâ€™t measure how much damage is done to the brain. We donâ€™t see people falling over or bleeding in the streets, but what about the long-termÂ effects?â€
Moretta adds that heâ€™s also concerned about the lack of urgency in the cleanup effort, citing the time it takes for the state to return with results of neighborhood soilÂ testing.
â€œThe county has shown they can do soil testing and give results the same day, so why does it take months with the state? With Aliso Canyon, we see how fast the government can react. Here we just havenâ€™t seen the same urgency.â€
All image credits: Youth for EnvironmentalÂ Justice.