The Cartel Of Contamination: Regulators Just Won’t Shut Down Exide

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The Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights was a fitting venue last night for a town hall meeting about resurrecting justice. Senators Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, and Assembly Speaker John Perez were the heroes grilling a panel of environmental regulators that included the state’s top toxics regulator Debbie Raphael, and a top air regulator, Barry Wallerstein, Executive Officer from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

What they got was a verbal flogging about serial toxic polluter Exide Technologies from lawmakers and from residents that packed the hall.  “Are our children worth as much as any other child?” asked Senator De Leon of regulators. Residents, some in gas masks and holding posters that said Arsenic Kills, repeatedly shouted “Shut them down” as regulators talked about the deal they had just cut with Exide to leave the plant open.

Doelores Mejia dubbed the regulators “the Cartel of Contamination,” saying it was outrageous that a bankrupt company like Exide would pay more than $16 million to top executives as a morale booster when the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) only just this week demanded less than half that amount for fixes to the plant’s filtration and drainage systems. Then she sprinkled what she called “blood money” made on the backs of the working class in front of regulators. They each got red-paint splattered fake million dollar bills. 

One after another, residents took the mike. “There is no amount of money that Exide can pay for my father, for me, or my mother who has passed,” said Terry Cano, who said that out of five siblings, three had moved away and had no health problems.  She, her brother, mother, and father weren’t so lucky.  She said that she and her father are terminally ill with an autoimmune disorder. “It’s too late for me,” she said.  She may not live to see her son graduate from high school. She offered to donate her body to science and have it “dissected” into little pieces if only regulators could get to the bottom of what made her sick and stopped it from happening again. Exposure to lead and arsenic can cause learning disabilities, autoimmune diseases, high heart disease, strokes, and cancer. 

Hector Alvorado said, “Do we have to go to the White House? Three weeks ago we were going to Syria because it gassed its own people. Exide is gassing our children, our citizens.” He said there was a double standard for foreign and domestic policy. Many voiced the sentiment of racism.

Debbie Raphael said she wasn't responsible for past mistakes at the DTSC but was working to make sure that the company did what regulators required to invest in making the plant safe. Residents said that wasn’t good enough. Only closure would do. Senator DeLeon pressed each regulator at the table on whether they believed Exide should be shut down.

“The honest answer: Do I believe they should be shut down? I don’t know,” said Raphael. “I need the data…, a pattern,” she said to boos. One thing Raphael and other regulators don’t need is more data to shut the company down. Records show that the DTSC knew of Exide’s emissions of heavy metals years ago. In 2007, a study prepared at the request of water regulators estimated that more than 700 pounds of lead was deposited into the LA River from Exide in 2006 alone and the amount of lead dispersed annually had grown. In 1999 and 2000, DTSC found lead at levels of 40 percent in the sediment at the bottom of a storm retention pond.

When DeLeon pressed Barry Wallerstein, the air regulator said he had seen only “problem after problem” at the plant, but that the plant would have to be shut down in a way that isn’t construed as “the illegal taking of a business.” That’s easy. All regulators have to do is look at Exide’s record and follow state law that says a permit can be denied or revoked for any pattern of violating laws on hazardous waste, substances, or materials, or even for threatening the public health and environment. Exide was repeatedly fined for everything from leaks to illegal storage of used lead-acid batteries and failing to minimize the possibility of hazardous releases and repeatedly ordered to cleanup between 2002 and 2008. It meets the criteria for permit denial in spades.

The fact of the matter is we don’t need new regulations, or new laws “with teeth,” as Senator DeLeon offered last night. The problem with environmental regulators is not a lack of manpower, as a just-released permitting review of DTSC suggests. This is a matter of will power, the lack of willpower to enforce some of the toughest environmental laws in the country. The right thing would be to demand that Exide put up many millions more to fix its operations and clean up existing contamination. And put up many millions more to cover the closing of the plant. DTSC officials should be begging the bankruptcy judge to put them first in the creditor line. And then, after they get the money that state law allows them to demand from hazardous waste companies to cover contingencies, they should show Exide the door.

As long as environmental regulators value economic growth over the lives of people, nothing will change.  As long as regulators fear losing their raises and corner offices more than standing up to the businesses that complain to the Horseshoe about their unfair treatment, people will keep on dying. Make no mistake: industry has captured our regulators. All businesses have to do is say any regulation or law they don’t like is a “job killer” for policymakers to run for cover. The real job killers are serial polluters that snuff out lives and damage the brains of schoolchildren, hobbling our future productivity and ability to compete. As long as Exide stays open, perhaps our motto should be, “Don’t kill jobs, kill people.”

Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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