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Battery recycler Exide to stay open, as toxic regulators announce cleanup deal [UPDATED]

State officials suspended operations at the Exide Technologies in Vernon, Calif. in April due to emissions of arsenic that could pose a health risk to 110,000 people in nearby communities. The plant is now reopened. Mae Ryan/KPCC

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control announced that it has reached a deal with embattled battery recycler Exide Technologies that will allow the company to keep its Vernon plant open.

Brian Johnson, chief of the department’s hazardous waste management program, says DTSC will issue an order requiring Exide to clean up leaky stormwater pipes and control toxic substances in air emissions.

“[The order] includes requirements that go beyond out initial concerns,” Johnson said in a conference call. Those requirements will help “identify potential impacts the facility may have had on surrounding communities,” he said.

TIMELINE: Exide's shutdown in Vernon

Earlier this spring, toxics officials identified those two problems as health hazards to workers in the area and the community at large. Air emissions of lead and arsenic are raising cancer risks in the area, according to a study released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The company’s own inspection video identified leaks in stormwater pipes, used at times for wastewater. That could lead to toxic chemicals seeping into the surrounding soil.

Under the deal, the Georgia-based company would also put up $7.7 million to pay for cleanup of those violations and to cover the cost of blood tests for lead for people living and working around the facility and other environmental tests.

“It will tell us how Exide’s lead emissions have impacted the community,” Johnson said. He referred inquiries about the timing of the blood tests, the cost of the tests, and the scope of the tests to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. A spokesman for DPH said details about the tests are still being fleshed out.

RELATED: Exide Technologies FAQ: Everything you need to know about recycling lead batteries in LA

Exide is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in a Delaware court. A bankruptcy judge must approve the order for it to take effect.

State regulators suspended operations at the Vernon facility in April, an order that Exide successfully fought in superior court. The facility has remained open while an administrative law judge considers Exide's appeal of that closure order. 

The company’s written statement on the proposed deal details the work Exide says it has undertaken since spring. “Exide has taken aggressive steps to install new equipment at the plant and those efforts have paid off in substantially reducing emissions,” said Robert M. Caruso, Exide’s president and chief executive.     

Initial reactions to the deal from people living near the plant were skeptical. Frank Villalobos, a resident of East L.A., wants more testing and more guarantees from Exide. “I think they ought to shut down while they put in these improvements,” Villalobos said. “Let’s test the air when they shut down so there's a comparison as to what happens when they shut down.”
Villalobos and Boyle Heights resident Doelorez Mejia both say they share a distrust of state and federal environmental regulators. Mejia says she suspects lax enforcement is a problem around the state. “It's not even about Exide anymore,” she says. “It's about DTSC.”
Johnson defends his department’s supervision of Exide. “This is the beginning of an intense phase of oversight,” he said. “We are not walking away.”

(This post is an update of a previous post.)