LA County Residents Demand Feds Reject Exide Bankruptcy Plan

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

(CN) — The operators of the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County have proposed a plan to abandon the site through bankruptcy and avoid cleaning it and the surrounding, predominantly Latino neighborhoods, where residents have reported lead poisoning and other health issues for decades.

Residents from the affected communities, environmental experts and elected officials asked the Department of Justice during a telephone hearing Tuesday to reject a bankruptcy proposal filed by Exide. Some cried, others yelled and many asked the federal government to hold Exide liable for environmental damage that impacted more than 100,000 residents. 

Many Latino residents who spoke during the hearing accused Exide of environmental racism and considered federal regulators complicit because the Trump administration has not opposed the plan. The company’s proposed settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is making its way through a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Denver. A hearing on the proposed plan is scheduled for Thursday.

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

In 2014, state regulators forced the battery recycling plant to shut down, finding the site spread lead dust over residential neighborhoods up to 1.7 miles away. The next year, the operators avoided criminal prosecution when they agreed to a settlement with federal regulators and to perform a $50 million cleanup at the site and surrounding areas. The operators also admitted they mishandled hazardous waste at the site for years.

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

Callers during a nearly five-hour-long telephone hearing asked for criminal charges to be brought against the company and for the Department of Justice to reject the plan. Others shared their health problems.

Resident Elizabeth Alvarez said she lives about a mile from the now-shuttered site. She said her son was born with a malformation of his stomach and her daughter has a rare disease likely caused by lead poisoning from Exide.

“How dare they pollute our communities and try to walk away,” Alvarez said.

Boyle Heights resident Rosalie Hernandez has lived in the area for 15 years.

“It just seems unfair that our community is subjected to this environmental racism,” Hernandez said.

Yvonne Martinez Watson, who lives in the nearby city of Montebello, said “heads would roll” if this type of environmental disaster happened in a more affluent community as opposed to a working class, predominantly Latino community.

Salvador Gutierrez, from the city of Commerce, made the same request that many others made during the hearing: He asked the Department of Justice to bring criminal charges against Exide executives.

California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who represents several cities near the Exide plant, said it would not be fair for the operators to walk away from the site when residents who face environmental harms cannot do the same.

“It’s long overdue that we show this community we care about them and they’re not disposable,” said Garcia.

Residents also asked for the public comment period to be extended beyond the eight days that was allotted when the proposal was made public in late September.

Roughly 4,700 properties have been tested in the area around the plant and the state has spent approximately $200 million to do some cleanup.

If Exide is allowed to move ahead with its bankruptcy plan, California and taxpayers could be on the hook for roughly $270 million and the cleanup could be held up for years.

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