At What Point Could this Have Been Stopped?: Community Celebrates Exide’s Closure, Seeks Full Accounting from New DTSC Director
“We won, folks. We won!” Monsignor John Moretta addressed the crowd that had gathered at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to hear about the process by which the closure of Exide Technologies’ embattled lead-acid battery recycling facility would begin. “Siempre adelante. Siempre adelante.” [Always moving forward.]
To a degree, the conversation that took place last Thursday regarding the closure of the Vernon plant did genuinely feel like a step forward. A small one, to be sure, but a step forward nonetheless.
For one, Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) Director Barbara Lee was on hand to speak with the community. That alone was unusual, in that, in the many years the community has spent demanding their health be protected, the director of the department had never made such a clear effort to engage stakeholders both formally and informally.* But so was the level of candor with which she addressed those in the audience.
“Many of you are very angry and many of you have been harmed in a number of ways. And you feel that the department has failed you,” she began. “I want to start by saying I’m very sorry.”
Then, in a solemn sotto voce, she ticked off a long list of ways in which the department had gotten it wrong.
“[Exide] should not have operated without a formal permit for decades…We should have acted sooner;” “We didn’t watch them the way we should have done over many years;” “We failed to see and failed to say when enough was enough;” and, “We haven’t worked well with co-regulators…for many years.”
She was referring to the impressive level of negligence on the part of the DTSC and other relevant authorities that allowed Exide (and its predecessors) to operate without a formal permit and largely with impunity for decades. As we recently charted here, Exide has repeatedly violated air quality and other standards by improperly storing lead-acid batteries, contaminating a drainage channel with lead, failing to clean up public areas it contaminated around the plant, spilling approximately 1136 lbs. of lead into the watershed (between 2003 and 2006), exceeding airborne lead emissions multiple times (including during the period it was closed for upgrades last year), not repairing degraded pipes carrying up to 310,000 gallons of contaminant-laden wastewater a day, and, most recently, storing “contaminated sludge in tanks that [it] is not authorized to operate,” failing to sufficiently protect against spills of hazardous waste, and “fail[ing] to minimize the possibility of any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous wastes or hazardous waste constituents to air, soil, or surface water.” (For the full slate of inspection reports and a thorough overview of Exide’s misdeeds, see Tony Barboza’s excellent report for the L.A. Times, here.)
“We didn’t listen to you,” Lee concluded, “but I am here to listen to you today.”
Instead of asking attendees to take her word for it, she ran down a list of the changes she had made to the way the DTSC operated since she had taken over the department last November. She had committed to the recommendations resulting from an audit of the department’s permitting process, which included the need for a speedier review process and the clearing out of backlogged applications. She appointed new division chiefs to the Enforcement and Permitting offices, as well as a new deputy director for Enforcement. And she put together a 45-person team to work on the Exide case, had inspectors on site every day, and would both be adjusting the standards by which they judged future operating permit applications and consulting with communities as part of that process.
With regard to current goings-on at the Vernon plant — where between 6 and 8 truckloads of hazardous waste are being packed up and shipped out to a facility in Muncie, Indiana, per day — Lee said Exide was tasked with ensuring that waste was fully wrapped and sealed (so it couldn’t leak from trucks, as it had in the past, below), trucks were washed before they left the site, and trucks were not idling in or moving through residential communities during the 60 days Exide estimated it would take to remove the waste 2000+ miles away (see Exide’s plan, here).
When it came time for the plant itself to be dismantled, Lee said, the structures would likely be both power washed and wrapped so they were wet, covered, and less likely to send toxic dust into the air when taken down.
Although the DTSC was still waiting for Exide to complete and submit its final plans for the closure and post-closure clean ups — it must do so by May 15 — Lee reiterated she would hold both Exide and the DTSC to high standards to protect the community. And the lessons learned from this case would be applied to other cases going forward.
The 200 or so attendees on hand seemed to take her at her word. Many that got up to speak thanked her for her sincerity and what appeared to be her genuine interest in engaging with community members.
But it didn’t mean all was forgiven. Read more…