By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch, Managing Editor

WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America – Excide Technologies immediately began shutting down its battery recycling plant in Vernon California after reaching an agreement allowing the company to avoid facing criminal prosecution for decades of pollution in a lower income community just five miles southeast of the city of Los Angeles. Under the deal struck by federal officials and the company, Exide acknowledges criminal conduct, including the illegal storage and transportation of hazardous waste products. Company officials will avoid criminal charges in exchange for shutting down, demolishing and cleaning the 15-acre battery recycling plant.

Community members gather at an Eastside home to celebrate the Exide Closure agreement. Residents want the company to follow through on the cleanup of lead and other contamination in their neighborhoods and homes. (Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times)

Over decades of operation, the Excide recycling facility has polluted soil beneath the plant with high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other deadly toxic metals, according to state environmental records. Pollutants from the plant have also contaminated groundwater and released battery acid onto roads. The plant also contaminated homes and yards in surrounding low-income Hispanic communities with lead emissions. Following the announcement of the closure Msgr. John Moretta, of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, whose parishioners had raised health concerns about the plant and have argued for its closure for several years, said “our long nightmare is over. He continued; “we now look forward to a thorough and just cleanup of our homes and neighborhoods.”

Roberto Cabrales, a community organizer with the organizations, Communities for a Better Environment, said news of the plant closure was “a shocker.” His organization and others fought for years to see the plant closed and had expected that state officials would allow Exide, which has been operating on a temporary license, to remain open. “We’re concerned that they will not be pursued for criminal prosecution,” Cabrales said. “But if that means that Exide will stay closed, then that’s in itself a victory for the community.”

State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park), who wrote legislation requiring the state agency to issue Exide a permit or shut it down by the end of 2015, said the plant’s closure will bring relief to the residents of the community neighboring the plant. “But the legacy of impacts of this facility will not go away overnight,” he said in a statement. “To truly understand the magnitude of this issue, we need a comprehensive review of soil contamination and better data on the health impacts to people who continue to be exposed to unhealthy levels of lead and arsenic.”

Federal officials have insisted the agreement would require Exide International to pay the cost of the entire cleanup, even if the costs exceed $50 million. “They’re on the hook with this agreement to pay whatever it takes to clean that site up,” said Joseph Johns, assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the environmental crimes section. Johns said he would have liked to secure a conviction and penalties against the company but argued that prosecuting the corporation would have resulted in the liquidation of the company which would have left taxpayers with the bill for the cost of the cleanup. “We decided that the balance of justice required us to think out of the box,” Johns said. “We struggled with this, and we decided that the right thing to do was not worry about sending one or two people to jail for a year or two, but rather, to prevent another 50-to-100-year sentence for the 110,000 people, the children and grandchildren that live in the communities.”

For more information please see:

The Lost Angeles Times – Exide faces a long, costly cleanup of closed Vernon plant – 21 March 2015

The Natural Resources Defense Council – Exide’s L.A. Lead Battery Facility to Close — Next Up, Clean Up – 16 March 2015

The Los Angeles Times – Q&A: Exide closure a long-sought win for working-class neighborhood – 12 March 2015

Reuters – UPDATE 2-Exide to close California battery recycling plant to avoid prosecution – 12 March 2015

Author: Impunity Watch Archive