State regulators make tough demands of Vernon battery recycler
Vernon-based battery manufacturer Exide Technologies is facing tough new orders from environmental regulators. It must immediately clean up soil and air pollution, pay penalties and costs and triple the amount of money it set aside to pay for cleanup in the event of its closure.
“We’re being as aggressive as we absolutely can to ensure that the public is protected,” said Miriam Ingenito, acting director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
In total, Exide must lay out almost $49 million towards cleanup, closure, penalties and costs - providing the federal judge overseeing the company's bankruptcy approves it. The order includes:
- $38.6 million the company must guarantee in the event of its closure
- $9 million for cleanup of at least 215 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood
- more than $750,000 in regulators’ oversight costs
- $526,000 in penalties for mishandling hazardous waste
“They’re all significant violations and they all must be addressed before the facility can resume any operations there,” Ingenito said.
Regulators briefly shuttered Exide last year, when a study showed that arsenic pollution from the facility increased the cancer risk for more than 100-thousand people in the area.
Since then, the South Coast Air Quality Management District concluded Exide violated numerous federal laws and required the company to toughen controls on airborne arsenic and lead pollution.
Even as it remains closed, some workers are installing new pollution controls at Exide. The company is also paying for further investigation of pollution problems at nearby houses. Next week, enforcement officials will be in East Los Angeles and Maywood, meeting with Exide's neighbors to discuss a plan to address contamination.
Tom Strang, Exide’s vice president for environmental health and safety, said the recycler intends to re-open for business next year. It's seeking permission from state and local environment officials to return to normal operations.
Strang said the fines and other requirements by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, will help them get there. The new order is part of a settlement that Exide announced in a court filing this week.
But the company does not agree with all of the requirements.
Strang opposes increasing to $38.6 million the amount it has to set aside for liability if it closes, saying it's overkill. Right now, it has set aside $11.1 million.
“This is the kind of money it would take to clean up the worst-case scenario - and that’s what’s required by the law,” he said.
Environmental watchdogs, who for years have lobbied the state to demand more money from Exide to cover closure costs, are pleased. They said bigger cushion will ensure California taxpayers won't be left holding the bag if the company pulls out of the site.
“They got more realistic about how much money it’s actually going to take [for cleanup],” said David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And they had the guts to stick with that number in the face of tough opposition by Exide.”
He said regulators have gotten tougher over the past several years - but still have a long way to go.