Dissatisfied with the state's handling of lead contamination in neighborhoods outside a Vernon battery recycling plant, Los Angeles County Supervisors have asked their attorneys to explore legal ways to prevent the plant from resuming recycling operations.
Recycling operations at the Exide Technologies facility halted in March, when the plant closed for maintenance. Later it was cited by the South Coast Air Quality Mangement District for exceeding lead emission standards, and recycling has not resumed. Exide is installing "enhanced systems" in order to comply with required standards, the company said.
At the same time, Exide has been funding testing and removal of lead-contaminated soil in Maywood and Boyle Heights under the supervision of California's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). So far, contaminated soil has been removed from the yards of two homes.
The possibility of the Vernon Exide facility resuming recycling is not precluded under the "stipulation and order" issued last week by DTSC.
"We are very, very upset," said Gloria Molina,in her final months as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. She criticized DTSC for failing to take steps to close the plant permanently. She also accused DTSC of excluding community members from the negotiations with Exide that led to the agreed course of action.
"Behind the scenes, they are making a deal--a deal that does not serve the needs of the community," Molina said at a news conference where she was joined by members of community groups.
She cited the DTSC order and the process that led to it as reason for her proceeding with her motion for the county to explore legal action. It passed.
Last week, Exide issued a statement announcing its agreement with the DTSC order. "We recognize the community's concerns and have committed to clean residential properties and work efficiently to minimize disruptions to residents," stated Thomas Strang, Exide Vice-President of Environmental Health and Safety.
Among other commitments, Exide agreed to set aside $9 million for contamination removal.
The sub-headline of Exide's statement described the agreement as a "Crucial Step Forward for Exide on Path to Obtaining Permanent Permit for its Battery Recycling Facility."
Exide had no immediate response Wednesday to Molina's motion and her criticisms of the
DTSC order, according to a spokesperson. But DTSC issued a statement disputing Molina's allegations.
"This is no deal for Exide," the DTSC statement reads in part. "It is an enforcement order that binds the company to clean up the community and set aside the funds to do the work."
The $9 million set aside "is sufficient to clean up all 215 homes in the two most impacted areas," according to the DTSC statement.
Complicating matters is Exide's bankruptcy, resulting in the need for the expenditures called for by DTSC order to be approved by a judge.
"Our review of the agreement shows it is full of holes," said Ramya Sivasuvramanian of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"This is not an order. It's a very weak agreement that can evaporate at any time," said Angelo Bellomo, Environmental Health Director for Los Angeles County. "There's no teeth in this agreement."
In additional to the soil testing, Exide is funding voluntary blood screening for lead. Elevated levels have not been found in most who were screened, Bellomo said, but he added that the analysis has yet to be done on a recent surge in screening requests.
Regardless of health effects, Bellomo said, California law requires remediation of contamination that exceeds environmental health standards.
The Vernon plant, which dates to the 1920's under a previous owner, specializes in recovering lead from so-called lead-acid batteries used for more than a century in automobiles.
Lead was identified as an environmental health hazard decades ago. Elevated levels in children have been associated with impaired brain development.
"For years, Exide has been poisoning our communities. For years, DTSC has failed to protect our communities," said Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "We cannot trust these two entities."
The DTSC statement indicated Exide could face additional orders and be required to provide additional funding. "We anticipate issuing additional orders as we gain more information about the company's impact on the surrounding community," concluded the DTSC statement.
Though it hopes the facility will reopen, Exide agreed to commit $38.66 million of assured funding if the plant were to close.