Photo by Art Torres
Helen Vega spends a large part of her days tending to her garden on her quiet, residential Boyle Heights neighborhood, a few blocks from the city of Vernon.
The Los Angeles Unified School District substitute teacher enjoys being outdoors, but didn’t realize her home is less than 1.5 miles away from Exide Technologies, the battery recycling plant that has been accused of releasing toxic air emissions resulting in a possible health risk for more than 100,000 people.
Many community organizations have joined forces to launch an activist campaign against Exide, packing public meetings and organizing email campaigns. And although the subject has caught widespread attention from newspapers and some local TV news channels, many residents in Boyle Heights and the surrounding areas remain largely unfamiliar with the potential dangers involved.
Vega, 52, learned about Exide from television newscasts and sermons given by Monsignor John Moretta at Resurrection Church, who speaks often about the dangers associated with the embattled company’s recycling process.
Moretta, community activists and elected officials have advocated for the plant’s closure, citing the plant’s continued violations over the years.
“They’ve been spewing out toxins for years, which we had no knowledge of. No one ever mentioned arsenic until the last few months. It’s like a deadly cocktail,” said Moretta.
In April, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) ordered shut down the plant when it was discovered that dangerous levels of arsenic and lead were being released into the environment.
That action was reversed June 17 when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin allowed Exide to continue operations on a conditional basis angering many area residents.
As a condition to its reopening, the company was ordered to begin testing dust and soil samples from in and around its facility, and cut production by 15 percent. However, air monitoring showed Exide’s lead emissions continued to exceed South Coast Air Quality Management District’s standards on multiple occasions in September.
The readings brought public safety into question prompting the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to call for free voluntary blood testing to about 250,000 people who might have been affected by lead poisoning beginning this month.
Exide officials reached a deal with DTSC Monday and agreed to spend $7.7 million for a new storm-water system, filters and improvements to lower its arsenic emissions.
The deal will hault efforts by DTSC to shut down the plant, something that doesn’t resonate well with some area residents.
“If this happened in Alhambra or Pasadena, they would be shut down,” said Lucero Rodriguez, Boyle Heights resident. “They would not want (Exide) in their community.”
Rodriguez was unaware of the controversy behind the plant, and said she had never received any notification either through postal mail, email, door-to-door outreach, or through word-of-mouth about Exide. Although she doesn’t live as close to Exide as Vega, she feels the community’s health and welfare is at stake and that the company should not be allowed to continue operations.
As an effort to “provide the community with an opportunity to hear the latest information directly from the regulators,” California Sen. Kevin De Leon, (D-Los Angeles) has called for a town hall meeting tonight at Resurrection Church, the first meeting organized by an elected official.
“Our regulatory agencies lack the clear legal authority to take the necessary action to enforce our regulations,” said Sen. De Leon in a statement. “The legislature must step in to provide DTSC and others the authority they are lacking.”
Representatives from the Department of Toxic Substance Control, AQMD, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the L.A. County Public Health department will join the community at the meeting.
The meeting is scheduled from 6 – 8 p.m. at Resurrection Church, 3324 Opal St Los Angeles, CA 90023.
Jessica Perez contributed to this report.