California Auditor Slams Expensive and Slow Cleanup of Battery Recycling Plant

The water tower in Vernon, Calif. (By Laurie Avocado / CC BY)

(CN) — Cleaning up the abandoned Exide battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County will cost California taxpayers nearly $400 million dollars in addition to other costs the state has already paid and the regulatory agency in charge is woefully behind schedule, the state auditor found.

The battery recycling plant in the city of Vernon released toxic chemicals into the surrounding residential neighborhood for decades. This month, a federal judge approved a bankruptcy plan that would allow Exide Technologies to abandon the site with minimal costs incurred.

That plan leaves California taxpayers on the hook and residents in the predominantly Latino communities will continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead. Cleanup timelines will be missed, and costs continue to balloon according to the audit released Tuesday.

State auditor Elaine Howle found the Exide bankruptcy plan did not leave enough money to maintain the superfund-like site to prevent further lead exposure. California will need to invest $390 million to clean the site in addition to the $260 million the state has already spent to clean the areas around the plant.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the department responsible for toxic cleanup, has not cleaned 31 out of 50 lead-contaminated properties near the site, including schools, parks and childcare centers according to Howle’s audit.

In a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, Howle said the agency is behind schedule and is hemorrhaging money.

“The department’s poor cost estimation and cost overruns by one of its contractors have contributed to DTSC spending more than expected to clean the contamination,” Howle wrote.

The agency will likely miss its June 2021 target to clean the 3,200 most contaminated out of 7,800 properties in the area near the Vernon plant despite identifying the sites as contaminated in 2014, according to the auditor’s report.

Howle slammed the department’s track record on holding Exide accountable and recommended strict deadlines and cost estimates to determine how much will be needed to complete the cleanup.

In a response to Howle’s audit, the department said it has cleaned properties at a relatively fast pace in comparison to other cleanup projects. Other factors slowed the cleanup work and the agency acknowledged the lack of funding, but agreed to follow the auditor’s recommendations.

In a statement, the department said it will continue to update the affected neighborhoods through public forums and is “committed to ensuring the safety of our kids and our communities from toxic pollution including holding polluters accountable.”

Howle said the evidence of the slow response is damning: Apart from one child care center that was cleaned in May 2020, there has been no other progress to clean up any other child care center, parks or schools since May 2018.

“As a result, it has continued to put the children and other at-risk individuals who spend time at these properties at unnecessary risk of the serious consequences of lead poisoning,” according to the report.

The agency’s cleanup plan was based on previous projects and consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But when Howle’s office asked for evidence of correspondence between the agency and the EPA, it was “limited to a handbook on lead contamination at residential sites that contained only a single reference to the pace at which a cleanup effort could potentially progress.”

With such a slow pace now set, the agency will miss its projected deadline by six months and leave the neighborhoods near the abandoned site in limbo.

The smelting plant has been a fixture in the city of Vernon since 1922. Exide took over the site in 2000.

In 2014, state regulators forced the plant to shut down, finding the site spread lead dust over residential neighborhoods up to 1.7 miles away. Exide avoided criminal prosecution for mishandling toxic chemicals at the 15-acre facility and agreed to a $50 million cleanup. Exide also apologized, but in May the parent company filed for bankruptcy and moved ahead with a nonconsensual confirmation to skirt liability and abandon the site.

Criticism has been lobbed at both Exide and the state agency meant to regulate the plant operators.

On Tuesday, Assembly member Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, demanded the agency “fix their mistakes and create a realistic plan to clean up every single contaminated property.”

“DTSC failed us again. It is unacceptable that the department will run out of money that the state gave them to clean up contaminated properties,” said Santiago in a statement.

For years, residents complained of health problems that seemed to go unnoticed by regulators or anyone outside the LA County communities.

Gloria Carrillo, a resident of Estrada Courts, lives about a 10-minute drive from the Vernon site. All four of her children have asthma, along with other children who live in the housing projects.

“Older people die here from cancer and everyone has headaches all the time. Everyone,” Carillo said in a phone interview this month.

According to DTSC’s permit history records, the Exide plant received about 11 million used lead-acid batteries each year — amounting to 100,000 to 120,000 tons of lead. That lead dust then rained down on homes, parks and schoolyards.

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