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Vol. 81/No. 6      February 13, 2017

(front page)

LA workers, SWP speak out against toxic pollution

LOS ANGELES — More than 75 people turned out at a state “public comment” hearing here Jan. 28 on toxic contamination in the working-class communities surrounding the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant, which operated in the Vernon area of the city from 1922 to 2015.

The meeting, held at Resurrection Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, was the third organized by officials of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. They gave a Power Point presentation on their cleanup plan for the 1.7 mile radius around the plant, including work to remove and replace 18 inches of lead-contaminated soil. They answered no questions, saying they would review the comments and prepare responses at a later date.

“It’s frustrating that instead of answering our questions, you do a power point program,” a resident named Isabelle told the officials.

“This is how working people are treated,” said Dennis Richter, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, when he addressed the hearing. Richter said he had worked at a similar plant in Indiana, where many workers were poisoned by toxic chemicals. “It is very important that you are fighting. I have been invited to speak to the Service Employees International Union meeting later today, and I will talk about your fight. This is a question for the unions to take up.”

“You ask is the fruit in your trees safe to eat and they say purple dinosaurs have sweaters,” Terry Cano, who has lived near the plant many years, told Richter before the meeting.

Georgia-based Exide took over the 15-acre lead-acid battery smelter in 2000. It operated around the clock, processing some 25,000 batteries a day. The plant was repeatedly cited by local, state and federal officials for emitting dangerously high levels of arsenic and lead, and for violating hazardous waste laws.

State allowed decades of violations

The state allowed the plant to operate without a full permit for 33 years, even as inspectors documented more than 100 violations, including lead and acid leaks, an overflowing pond of toxic sludge, enormous cracks in the floor and hazardous levels of lead in the soil outside.

Demands to close the plant mounted by those who live and work in the area. In 2014 the company revealed it was under federal criminal investigation, facing charges that could land company executives in jail. In March 2015, Exide signed an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to pay $50 million to demolish and clean the plant and surrounding communities, including $9 million set aside for removing lead from homes. In return, the government agreed not to prosecute company officials for years of illegal storage, disposal and shipment of hazardous waste, and for arsenic emissions that posed an increased cancer risk to more than 100,000 area residents.

“When they sampled my property, they only sampled for lead, not for arsenic, benzene, cadmium or chromium,” said Cano, who is now disabled. “I’ve had multiple strokes and dizziness. Some family members moved away. But me and my brother who stayed are the sickest.”

“We tried like heck to close the plant for a long time,” Cano’s brother Joe Gonzalez, who has sino-nasal melanoma and brain cancer, told Richter.

“Workers need to demand an emergency public works program that provides union jobs doing things like immediately cleaning up Exide’s contamination,” Richter told the people present. “The layers of bureaucracy workers have had to face to get to this point is outrageous. Whether it is here or in Torrance, where workers who live near the oil refineries face releases of contaminants, the bosses make huge profits from our labor with no regard for our health and safety. We need to organize a fight for what residents and workers need, and as much money as needed should be spent. It is already too little too late.”

“I’m worried about my health and the health of all my co-workers,” Pedro Albarran, a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 at the Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon, told those present. “The owners, bosses and politicians should be tried, because this is a crime.”

“You need to release a full list of chemicals, not just lead,” Cano told the hearing. “People need proper medical treatment. We have the right to know.”

Several of those who spoke said the radius of testing should be up to 4.5 miles. When the state analyzed blood test results from 12,000 children living within this radius of the facility in 2012, they found them twice as likely to have high lead levels as children countywide.  
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