Exide Recycling Plant to Close, Pay For Cleanup, in $50M Pollution Settlement Deal

A controversial Exide recycling plant near downtown Los Angeles will permanently close down under an agreement reached late Wednesday night with the U.S. attorney's office.

The battery recycling plant in Vernon has been at the center of community outrage due to its long history of violating air pollution and hazardous waste laws, which the company admitted to as a way to avoid jail time.

"The people of Vernon and East Los Angeles are entitled to work, live and raise their children in a neighborhood where they do not have to fear that a polluter may have contaminated their air, ground and water," U.S. attorney Stephanie Yonekura said.

Under the non-prosecution agreement, Exide will not face criminal charges but will pay $50 million of dollars to clean up the area, which may be polluted with hazardous wastes like arsenic and lead, as well as demolish its plant. The company will also admit to the illegal disposal, storage and transportation of hazardous materials.

It is a victory for residents, environmental activists, and a number of Los Angeles County officials who contended the plant, which dates to the 1920s, has posed a threat to public health.

"The Company will immediately move to permanently close its lead-acid battery recycling facility," read an Exide statement released Thursday that also said the company would seek to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In December, the second phase of the cleanup of two residential neighborhoods near the plant began. Crews began removing contaminated soil from two yards in Boyle Heights that contain concentrations of lead that could pose a risk to young children or women who are pregnant.

These two neighborhoods were identified by the South Coast Air Quality Management District as the most likely to be impacted by lead emissions from the plant.  

Exide was previously ordered by the State Department of Toxic Substances to put aside $9 million to clean up the two neighborhoods. The state Department of Toxic Substances also ordered Exide to set aside $38.6 million for cleanup costs if the Vernon plant ever closes.

A report released last year disclosed that concentrations of lead in excess of 80 parts per million (ppm) were found in the yards of 39 homes. Eighty ppm is deemed a "screening" threshold; California Public Health considers concentrations in excess of 400 ppm to be potentially harmful, especially to young children whose brain development can be impaired by lead poisoning.

"It still leaves all the what ifs," said Eddie Cervantes, who lives near the plant. "It's a little relief, but it's not much. It's after the fact."

Asher Klein contributed to this report.

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