Judge Allows Exide to Abandon Polluted Battery Plant in LA County

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

(CN) — A federal judge on Friday approved a bankruptcy plan by Exide Technologies that will allow the company to skirt costs and cleanup of a southern California battery-recycling plant that for decades poisoned surrounding neighborhoods.

The Chapter 11 plan was approved in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware despite outcry from California lawmakers, residents and environmental advocacy groups who argued the federal government should hold the company liable for the toxic mess it has left behind in the city of Vernon.

Residents in surrounding neighborhoods in Los Angeles County have for years complained over the health issues they experienced related to the lead poisoning created by the plant.

UCLA law school student Idalmis Vaquero, 26, has lived at the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights since she was 13 years old. Residents, who live about 1.5 miles away from the plant, have complained about health issues and requested testing at the site for years.

Now plans for a cleanup are stalled despite Exide promising to clean up the site to avoid criminal prosecution for mishandling toxic chemicals.

Vaquero said she knew that the odds were stacked in Exide’s favor during the Friday morning bankruptcy hearing.

“I wasn’t very optimistic, but I am still disappointed and frustrated that our community is left with the burden of contamination without a clear timeline when our homes are going to be cleaned up,” said Vaquero, who is also a member of the advocacy group East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice.

“And now we’re going to be left with the bill,” she said with a long sigh.

Vaquero said an enclosure surrounds the plant to contain the escape of harmful substances, but after Oct. 30 Exide is no longer legally required to maintain that process.

Chief Judge Christopher Sontchi from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court District of Delaware said Friday that Exide’s contract would remain in place to maintain the enclosure until the end of the month and after that the abandonment would be in effect.

California can appeal the court’s decision, but there will be no stay in the legal proceedings.  

In a statement, California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state intends to appeal the court’s decision and he is “outraged that the federal bankruptcy court let Exide and its creditors off the hook today and decided that lead exposure does not pose an imminent or immediate harm to the public.”

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state regulator on toxic cleanup, issued a comment Friday evening.

“DTSC strongly objected to Exide’s plan to abandon the Vernon property and walk away from its cleanup obligations. DTSC will continue to fight to hold Exide accountable by appealing this ruling,” spokeswoman Barbara Zumwalt said in a statement.

On Wednesday, during a telephone hearing with the Department of Justice, residents from communities surrounding the now-shuttered Exide plant expressed their anger and frustration that the company would leave behind a toxic mess after promising several years before to commit a $50 million cleanup.

Exide entered into the agreement with regulators to avoid criminal prosecution and apologized for mishandling toxic chemicals at the site for years.

During the recent bankruptcy proceedings, the federal government did not oppose the Exide plan. Exide says it will leave behind just $2.5 million for any cleanup costs.

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.

In May, Exide Holdings filed for bankruptcy and moved ahead with a nonconsensual confirmation to skirt liability and abandon the site.

On Friday, California Assembly member Miguel Santiago, who represents LA County, said the court’s decision to allow the bankruptcy plan to move forward would “allow corporate polluter Exide to abandon its responsibilities to clean up decades of contamination.”

Mayor of the city of Cudahy Elizabeth Alcantar said it’s clear that Exide executives should be held criminally accountable for breaking the 2015 agreement.

“I think in all it’s an injustice that’s going to continue,” said Alcantar. “They’re going to be allowed to abandon the site and … continue to hurt the people who are living in this community.”

The court proceeding made it clear that the state of California did not do enough over the years to hold Exide accountable said Alcantar and the company took advantage of that situation.

“Essentially, in two weeks they’re washing their hands free of the damages they caused,” said Alcantar.

Cudahy is approximately four miles from the Vernon plant and environmental advocacy groups say it falls within a region of communities that should be tested for lead poisoning.

Exide’s legal counsel did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Gloria Carillo, another resident of Estrada Courts, said she 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,” said Carillo when reached by phone.

“One of the concerns and worries we have about is when kids grow up: how’s their health going to be? We have to deal with so many other issues here,” said Carillo who did not know about the court’s decision when asked by Courthouse News Service.

Carillo asked who will clean up the site if Exide won’t.

“We don’t have hope to have anyone to come and clean because nobody wants to pay for that… it’s like we don’t have no hope.”

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