I walked into my room and sat on the bed. No one was home except for my brother and my younger sisters. One of them was asleep because she was feeling sick. The other, my twelve-year-old sister, had no clue what to do because the TV was not working. She came into my room and sat down next to me because she was bored. As I sat there thinking about how to start this blog post, I realized that I have never had a one-on-one conversation with her about the work I do. Sure, she goes to weekly meetings, participates in workshops, and helps out with campaign work, but I wanted to know if she truly understood what we represent.
I asked her if she knew about the work I do with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). She stopped me before I asked anything else and said, “I think that CBE is doing a great job and the government is…I don’t know. I think the car engine is polluting a lot- our environment and the people in it. We are getting sick and it is preventing us from bringing in happy people to the world.” That was the motivation I needed to start writing today.
The “car engines” she was referring to in this case are car batteries- she was talking about Exide Technologies in the city of Vernon. Exide Technologies is one of the biggest battery recyclers in the world. Exide recycled approximately 22 million lead car batteries every year- 41,000 batteries per day. When we think of the word recycle, there is this positive connotation associated with it that makes us picture a clean, green environment. That is not always the case. In reality, for three decades, Exide has illegally polluted our soil, water, and air- studies show that Exide emitted high levels of lead (7M lbs in air emissions), arsenic (rat poison), Benzene, and 1,3-Butadiene. In fact, Exide violated dozens and dozens of environmental laws. Legally, one company can cause cancer to 25 in a million; Exide elevated the cancer risk of workers approximately 156 cancer cases per million and gambled the health of over 110,000 residents of Southeast Los Angeles and East Los Angeles. Exide failed to show that it is able to comply with applicable air emission standards.
Exide has been a part of our toxic tours since the 1990s. To us, it is not news that Exide is a serial violator. The main agencies responsible to hold Exide accountable are the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). These are broken agencies with a hystory of ignoring health concerns that followed a cycle- they would cite the multibillion-dollar company and Exide would simply pay the fine, over and over again. The fines added up to about $500 million dollars and Exide continued to pay instead of making their process meet the legal requirements. There is NO accountability. However, through the legal and organizing efforts of CBE, East Yards, and those in the community, we were able to expose Exide and our government agencies.
Our campaign has three goals:
- Shutdown: We demand the immediate shutdown of the company- Exide failed to respect or value our lives for decades. To this very day, they have not admitted to any wrongdoing. They put the lives of workers and those in surrounding communities at risk.
- Clean up: We demand the clean up of the site and our communities. We deserve environmental justice and therefore Exide must clean up their mess without putting more people at risk.
- Just Transition: We demand a just transition for the workers. We believe that the workers deserve to get full coverage and training to transition into a green industry. No person should ever have to choose between health and jobs.
We organized marches, vigils, street theatre, press conferences, attended government hearings, worked with legislatures and the county (with Supervisor Gloria Molina and then with Supervisor Hilda Solis), testified in Sacramento several times, and we did everything in our power to raise awareness about Exide and the harm they have done. We also worked on three bills, SB812, SB711, and SB673, which all help keep Exide and DTSC accountable. I personally went to the UN Gatherings on Climate Change (read more about this here) to bring awareness to this issue at an international level.
As of March 2015, Exide was pushed to shut down through federal government efforts and because of the organizing efforts the community has done.
Goal one was met, but the fight is not over. Exide has put 10,000 homes (about 90,000 people) at risk of lead poisoning. This is one of the biggest toxic clean ups in the hystory of California. There are two projects for the clean up.
- Site clean up: This will take about 7 years to clean up and there is no guarantee it will be safe. Current proposals in the Environmental Impact Report to clean up the site involve sending workers in to physically remove waste, involve diesel fueled trucks, and mention using water-powered machinery. The scientists and staff working for DTSC need to propose a better plan because these are not real solutions and are harmful to the community.
- Community clean up: There are 10,000 homes that need to be tested and eventually cleaned up. Out of the $176.6 million dollars that is being proposed by the state, we are asking for some of that money to go to local hiring, training, and to serve the 120 workers from Exide as well.
So Where Are We Now?
Soil testing for one house costs about $45,000 dollars, so gathering the funds to start the clean up process is a victory. Although, it is also a small step. There is much more work to be done. The clean up only expands to a 1.6 mile radius from the toxic battery-recycling site, even though tests show that children who live 4.4 miles from Exide have more lead in their blood. The Environmental Protection Agency found elevated levels of lead in the soil in homes near the facility, many over the allowed limit of 80PPM- homes are legally being called toxic waste dumps.
As a community, we are making sure there is accountability. We are also making sure that folxs are looked after. CBE, East Yards, and other community leaders have gone door-to-door informing our neighbors about Exide and are encouraging them to get their soil tested. It is also important that folx get their blood tested for lead- if you live in East Los Angeles or Southeast Los Angeles, look into getting your blood tested free of charge (coordinated by the LA County Department of Public Health) here.
We are the red line, and although we have been crossed, we will not stop until we have justice.