Over the objections of California officials and community members, a bankruptcy court approved a settlement that will allow Exide Technologies to abandon its shuttered recycling plant in Vernon by the end of the month and leave the cost of completing the environmental cleanup of the site and in nearby communities to California taxpayers.
Chief Judge Christopher Sontchi of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court District of Delaware, ruled that there was no “imminent” threat posed by Exide’s abandonment of the plant, several media outlets reported.
Attorneys representing California strongly objected to the settlement – supported by the Trump administration – and vowed to appeal. But Sontchi had harsh words for the state and its Department of Toxic Substances Control, saying both had failed to take timely action to clean up the plant.
For decades, community members have complained about the hazards caused by the Vernon plant – which was allowed to operate for more than 30 years on a temporary permit, despite several air pollution violations – and about the failure by local, state and federal authorities to protect area residents from the lead, arsenic and other pollutants produced at the facility.
The plant was finally closed in 2015. At the time, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute Exide in exchange for the company safely closing down the plant and cleaning up the contamination it caused, including lead found in surrounding communities.
In 2016, California approved $176.6 million to test soil at properties near the plant and conduct cleanup operations at as many as 2,500 properties near the site.
In 2018, an analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles had the highest rates of lead contamination – a known cause of brain damage, particularly in children. A 2019 USC study also found high levels of lead in baby teeth in both of these neighboring communities.
Friday’s decision followed two days of hearings that included testimony from environmental regulations about the threats of closing down the plant before the cleanup was completed. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Justice Department received more than 1,000 written public comments in opposition to Exide’s proposal, which was released three weeks ago.
On Tuesday, the paper reported, more than 650 people called in to a five-hour public hearing with 125 people able to give testimony that was “universally and strenuously and sometimes emotionally opposed to approval.”
Several state and local officials reacted to Friday’s decision, several of them posting on Twitter and other social media. These are some reactions:
“I am outraged that the federal bankruptcy court let Exide and its creditors off the hook today and decided that lead exposure does not pose an imminent or immediate harm to the public. That is wrong, it ignores decades of scientific evidence, and it is a dangerous decision that we absolutely intend to appeal.”Governor Gavin Newsom
“Taxpayers shouldn’t get stuck with the damage caused by polluters. Exide spewed poison into communities, and the federal government is letting them off the hook during a public health crisis. Americans deserve better.”Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
“Our communities have been hurting long enough and today we have witnessed another disturbing injustice committed against them. We will fight this horrific decision and stop the harm that is being done to our communities.”Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles
“This court ruling is an insult to communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East LA, Huntington Park, and Maywood, where the residents are primarily working-class Latinos, and demonstrates the federal administration’s unwillingness and failure to hold polluters accountable.”Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solís