Elected officials spoke out in opposition Tuesday to a proposed bankruptcy settlement between Exide Technologies LLC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice that would allow the battery maker to abandon its Vernon facility and take no future responsibility for environmental cleanup of the contaminated site.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis called on the federal government to withdraw the settlement, which was reached after several mediation sessions that included representatives from California, according to the settlement document.
“It fails to hold Exide and its predecessors accountable for operating the Vernon facility in violation of state laws and regulations for decades, resulting in environmental contamination in the surrounding communities of Boyle Heights, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Bell and Huntington Park — all of which I represent,” Solis said.
Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, and other officials and community leaders held an outdoor news conference to call for a public hearing in Los Angeles before any settlement is finalized.
“For too many years, we’ve seen how corporations pollute our working-class immigrant communities and walk away unscathed,” Santiago said. “We’re sick and tired of these injustices and demand the U.S. DOJ oppose Exide’s proposal to abandon its highly contaminated Vernon site.”
The outcry came on the last of eight days the federal government allowed for public comment, though both Solis and Santiago called for that period to be extended.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute Exide for violations of hazardous waste law in exchange for safely shutting down the Vernon facility and cleaning up related contamination, including lead found in the soil of surrounding homes.
The Exide plant, which opened in 1922, had been allowed to keep operating under a temporary permit for 33 years, despite continuing environmental violations. In addition to lead-contaminated soil, concerns were raised about the emission of arsenic, cadmium and other toxic chemicals and the release of battery acid onto roads.
When Exide closed the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding area. Of that amount, $26 million was meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.
In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million to test soil at properties near the plant and conduct cleanup operations at as many as 2,500 properties near the site. At the time, it was the largest cleanup operation ever undertaken by the state.
“The federal government should immediately revoke the non-prosecution agreement with Exide and pursue criminal charges against Exide and its executives, who have attempted to avoid their legal responsibilities at every turn,” Solis said.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said the state “had a deal with Exide, but now the federal administration seems ready to let them walk away from their responsibilities. We must stand up to prevent future toxic disasters. Exide must pay for the damage it has done to the environment and to our communities.”
Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, said Exide should be forced to clean up the site.
“Exide is using a bankruptcy filing to wash its hand clean of responsibility and the U.S. Department of Justice is in favor of allowing it to abandon the site and evade environmental responsibilities,” Durazo said. “We cannot allow these bad actors to pollute our communities and walk away without paying the price.”
Exide, which is managing multiple lawsuits and consent decrees related to sites across the country, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. In the proposed DOJ settlement, which also covers sites in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Texas, the federal government has agreed not to oppose abandonment of sites around the country, including Vernon.
“Debtors represent that they do not have the funds to complete the remediation and that the current funding for the bankruptcy cases is projected to be exhausted by the end of September 2020,” according to the settlement document posted on the DOJ site.
In August, Exide sold its U.S.-based transportation, recycling and industrial power businesses, not including the contaminated sites in question, to Atlas Holdings LLC for $178.6 million. That money will be used to pay secured lenders and bankruptcy costs. The company has an agreement to sell its businesses outside the U.S. to a consortium of its creditors for $430 million, but that represents forgiveness of debt rather than proceeds to the company, according to the settlement.
A bond of $11.16 million was issued in connection with liabilities related to the Vernon site and, to the extent that money is still available, can be drawn against by an environmental trustee under the proposed settlement. A separate bond was issued for the remaining sites.
Though the EPA and other environmental agencies sought to hold Exide accountable for the environmental cleanup of various sites while the company disputed the extent of its liability, the DOJ said the settlement agreement was in the public interest.
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, took a shot at state regulators.
“DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances Control) allowed Exide to operate without proper oversight for years, thereby allowing Exide to pollute and poison our communities with no consequence,” Carrillo said. “Exide should not be allowed to walk away from this environmental disaster and their responsibilities to clean it up through a bankruptcy. We demand and deserve justice.”
In 2018, state environmental regulators released maps identifying more than 2,000 properties near the former Exide plant with elevated lead concentrations in the soil. The interactive maps were based on tests conducted by the DTSC at 8,500 properties within 1.7 miles of the shuttered facility.
A 2019 USC study found lead in the baby teeth of children living near the plant. When the report was released, one of its authors underscored the danger.
“We found the higher the level of lead in the soil, the higher the amount of lead in baby teeth,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There’s no safe level of lead; it’s a potent neurotoxin. Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact of industrial contamination on children.”
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