VERNON (CBSLA) — A judge on Friday approved a bankruptcy settlement allowing Exide Technologies to abandon its former battery recycling plant in Vernon, despite the protests of state and local officials.
The move will leave the state — and taxpayers — with a hefty bill to pay for the continued environmental cleanup of the site.
Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi in Delaware ruled that there was no "imminent" threat posed by Exide's abandonment of the plant, even though the site has led to extensive lead pollution in the air and soil of surrounding neighborhoods.
"I'm completely concerned," Guadalupe Valdo, an East Los Angeles resident, said. "I'm worried, it's very fearful to live here"
Her home is located just a few miles away from the former battery recycling plant.
State attorneys strongly objected to the settlement and have vowed to appeal.
Exide will be able to formally abandon the site by the end of the month, according to the settlement. After that, the state will need to take over environmental cleanup efforts. In court, Judge Sontchi suggested that both the state and the Department of Toxic Substances Control had failed to take timely action to clean up the plant, which was allowed to continue to operate for over 30 years on a temporary permit.
Earlier this week, DTSC officials issued a formal determination that the site presents an "imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare or to the environment.''
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to prosecute Exide for violating hazardous waste law in exchange for safely shutting down the Vernon plant and cleaning up the related contamination, including the lead.
Opened in 1922, the Exide plant operated despite the fact that it continually violated environmental law. Concerns were raised about the emission of arsenic, cadmium and other toxic chemicals and the release of battery acid onto roads.
When the plant was closed, Exide committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site. Of that, $26 million was supposed to go toward cleaning up surrounding residential areas.
Part of the site is now covered by a large white tent that was put in place to contain lead contamination inside.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted about the court ruling on Friday, writing "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.''
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he is "outraged" by the ruling that there is no "imminent" threat at the site.
"That is wrong, it ignores decades of scientific evidence and it is a dangerous decision that we absolutely intend to appeal,'' Newsom said. "If the court's ruling stands, Exide will evade responsibility for poisoning the homes, playgrounds and backyards that surround its Los Angeles facility. That is an unacceptable outcome, and California will continue fighting to hold Exide and its creditors accountable."
In the settlement — which also includes sites in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Texas — the federal government agreed it would not oppose the company's abandonment of sites around the country.
"Debtors represent that they do not have the funds to complete the remediation and that the current funding for the bankruptcy cases is projected to be exhausted by the end of September 2020,'' according to the settlement document posted on the Department of Justice website.
Though the EPA and other environmental agencies sought to hold Exide accountable for the environmental cleanup of various sites while the company disputed the extent of its liability, the DOJ said the settlement agreement was in the public interest.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)
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