Old Exide Technologies battery plant at center of environmental controversy

Exide batteries. Source: Exide Technologies

Exide batteries. Source: Exide Technologies

A closed battery recycling plant once operated by a Milton company is at the center of an environmental contamination controversy in California, according to a report this week in the Los Angeles Times.

Global battery maker Exide Technologies operated the plant, which California environmental officials have said is responsible for lead contamination at potentially thousands of residences surrounding the facility in the city of Vernon, a few miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is handling the cleanup, has said the plant spread contaminants across a wider area than originally thought, and the costly decontamination may affect 10,000 residences, according to the newspaper.

Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda Solis is calling for independent oversight to help ensure the cleanup effort doesn’t get bogged down, the Times reported.

In a statement, Exide said it is cooperating with environmental regulators. Exide said a study it commissioned by two Carnegie Mellon researchers found “the area of impact from the Exide facility above background levels is confined to the industrial area that surrounds the facility and does not reach residential areas.”

Exide emerged this year from its second Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding in recent years. Exide’s latest restructuring effort followed struggles with heavy debt, high lead prices, stiff competition and pollution issues.

The closure of the Vernon recycling center was part of its exit plan from bankruptcy as well as an agreement with federal prosecutors that allowed the company to avoid criminal charges related to environmental contamination.

As part of the pact with the government, Exide agreed to spend $50 million to shut down the Vernon plant and remove lead contaminants from affected soil and homes in the surrounding community.

According to the Times:

Lead is a powerful poison that can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and diminished IQs in children, who can ingest the dust when they play in the dirt. Removing the metal from thousands of homes would become the largest cleanup of its kind in California and could ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Solis said the governor’s office must intervene to ensure the state toxic substances department acts with greater urgency and is able to secure funds to pay for the immediate cleanup of the 1,000 most contaminated properties.

“We can’t afford to wait another week, two weeks,” Solis said in an interview. “We need immediate action.”

Solis also called for the state to establish a commission to investigate the long history of pollution at Exide, to look into “what exactly happened and who is responsible.”

Exide makes many types of batteries, including ones for cars, RVs and heavy trucks, as well as power backups for sensitive electronics and computer systems.

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