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Home / pollution

Officials push for Superfund designation at former Exide plant site

A group of local elected officials gathered Friday near the former Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon and pushed for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the area a federal Superfund site, a move that would free up funding for cleanup efforts and expedite the process.

Authorities have said the plant, which closed in 2015, released toxic chemicals including lead, arsenic and mercury into more than 10,000 properties in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon.

Cleanup and remediation efforts have been under way for years, but they still have not addressed the problem at thousands of properties.

“For decades, Exide dumped lead and hazardous contaminants into these communities without consequence, and it’s clear to me that this community of neighbors, friends and families has been neglected by just about everyone involved,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, said in a statement. “There’s been misstep after misstep and it’s time to finally put an end to that and provide justice.

“I’m calling on the EPA to formally designate these impacted neighborhoods as a federal Superfund site to provide critical federal resources and expertise to make sure Southeast Los Angeles can count on a thorough cleanup that prioritizes the health and safety of everyone who lives here.”

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has been overseeing cleanup efforts in the area, made a similar call last year, but there’s been no decision from the EPA.

Padilla was joined in Friday’s call for action by Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Long Beach; Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles; and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles.

“As a father of two young children, we cannot let our soil be contaminated by lead where our children play,” Santiago said in a statement. “Lead poisoning can lead to developmental delays and miscarriages. This is why I have been working nonstop with community leaders and passing legislation to increase funding, increase oversight and increase the speed of Exide’s clean-up.

“As part of that, I am so happy to work with Senator Padilla’s team to make Exide a Superfund site so we can expedite the cleanup and eliminate Exide’s disastrous effect on our community once and for all.”

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute the company for violations of hazardous waste law in exchange for safely shutting down the Vernon Exide facility and cleaning up related contamination, including lead found in the soil of thousands of surrounding homes.

When Exide closed the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding area. Of that amount, $26 million was meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

But in late 2020, a bankruptcy court judge approved a settlement agreement that allowed Exide to fully abandon the Vernon facility without further liability. Under the agreement, a bond of $11.16 million was issued in connection with liabilities related to the Vernon site.

The decision left the state on the hook for remaining cleanup efforts, with roughly half of the properties believed to have been contaminated still unremediated.

In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $176.6 million to expedite and expand the testing and cleanup of homes, schools and parks near Exide. The funding was expected to begin the process but not finish the work.

In 2020, an auditor found that even high-risk properties such as child care centers and schools had yet to be cleaned, and only about 2,000 residential properties in the area were cleaned. DTSC officials said last year the agency was closing in on 4,000 properties being cleaned.

The Exide plant opened in Vernon in 1922 and operated for years despite continuing environmental violations.

Declaring it a Superfund site would place it on a National Priority List for cleanup, potentially freeing up millions of federal dollars to speed cleanup efforts.

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