PEOPLE POWER—(Editor’s Note: This is one a series of profiles and reports celebrating Resistance Heroes … people like you who have stood up to power and won.)
For decades, the California Department of Toxic Substances logged environmental infractions at a Vernon battery recycling facility owned by Exide Technologies. Battery acid flowed into a manhole; lead waste was openly stored; floors at the facility were lined with cavernous cracks from chemicals.
Yet, the plant, located five miles from downtown, and its corporate owners were slapped with relatively minor fines – until two years ago. In 2015, the Georgia-based Exide Technologies cut a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, admitting to close to two decades of illegal activity. To avoid prosecution, the company would need to shutter the plant and demolish the facility, as well as cleaning up and removing lead from nearby homes.
It took years of questioning by members of the community who were concerned about the health risk for their families before anything happened. Once the plant was closed, advocacy groups and lawmakers called for a complete restructuring of the problem-laden California Toxics Department.
Finally, two years after Technologies cut the deal, action is moving forward to remove lead from the soil surrounding 2,500 residential properties and dozens of childcare centers near the former battery recycling plant. Under a plan released by The Department of Toxic Substances Control, an extensive two-year cleanup covering over 10,000 properties near the facility will be launched.
The contamination extends as far as almost two miles from the plant and work is expected to begin once a contractor is selected next month. The overall cleanup project includes 46 childcare centers, five private schools, and two parks – all areas frequented by children who are most at risk for lead contamination. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause permanent developmental damage.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control says it is committed to cleaning the soil around the 2,500 home in question, provided there is adequate funding. The state attorney general’s office is pursuing recovery costs from Exide. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year to allocate $176.6 million in public funds for the cleanup, which is the largest of any residential cleanups in the state.
For decades, it appears the department was asleep at the wheel – allowing the company to operate with no consequence for egregious environmental violations. With the oversight and advocacy of community activists and groups in the area, a cleanup is finally getting started.
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(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)