In summary

The Legislature must require polluting facilities to provide proof they can pay to clean up contamination during operations and upon closure.

By Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez, Special to CalMatters

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez is an associate professor of Sociology at Whittier College and the coordinator of the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier & Avocado Heights, rebecca@cleanaircoalition.org.

Every day is Groundhog Day for Californians, as our regulators keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. 

A polluting industrial facility is allowed to operate in a community even as it racks up violations, again. The polluting facility leaves a toxic mess in our neighborhoods, again. California’s regulators struggle to find the funds to clean up the mess, again. Taxpayers get stuck paying the clean-up costs, again. Because the polluter rarely, if ever, pays – again. 

Even though the consequences are entirely predictable and unimaginably devastating to the communities living alongside these facilities, California’s regulators seem doomed to repeat the same cycle over and over again.

Exide Technologies’ decades of dangerous operations in Los Angeles County followed by its decision to just abandon the secondary lead smelter in Vernon shows that the real cost of cleaning up toxic facilities – in health and dollars – is always staggering. 

While the clean-up is far from over, Exide’s bankruptcy lets it walk away from a massive mess that will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions to clean up. And while California is still reeling from this bankruptcy and our leaders express outrage and scramble to find ways out of this mess, none of our elected or appointed representatives ever managed to hold Exide – or themselves – accountable for the decades that it operated without a permit, all while Exide was knowingly contaminating the air and soil with arsenic and lead.

Yet even while California’s leaders cry foul over Exide, they’re already making the same mistake again. Just 17 miles east of Exide, in the City of Industry, sits Quemetco, another archaic secondary lead smelting facility that has been poisoning our communities for decades. 

Every year, Quemetco adds to its toxic legacy, producing thousands of tons of lead, and poisoning our air, water and soil every day. This week, my organization, the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier & Avocado Heights, and Earthjustice released a report that highlights Quemetco’s decades of injustice and lead contamination in Southern California.

Quemetco has spent decades violating state laws and evading all responsibility for its toxic contamination. Its parent company, RSR Corporation, has an even longer history of harmful violations: several of its secondary lead smelters caused such extensive contamination that they resulted in high-profile disastrous Superfund sites still struggling to deal with their toxic legacy decades later. 

Unbelievably, Quemetco’s cleanup fund is even smaller than Exide’s –  only $8.8 million – far less than will be needed to clean up a facility with a 2-mile radius of contamination from more than 9 million pounds of lead since 2008.

The agencies responsible for regulating these dangerous facilities have failed us over and over again. Like Exide, Quemetco has been allowed to operate on an expired permit for years. California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has been bogged down in an endless back-and-forth with Quemetco’s lawyers and lobbyists, all while Quemetco continues to smelt lead, rack up more violations and poison our communities. 

The South Coast Air Quality Management District lets Quemetco release toxic chemicals into the air, and instead of cracking down on these emissions, the agency is instead moving ahead with Quemetco’s request to increase production by 25%.

But it’s not too late for California to learn from its mistakes and break this cycle. Regulators must strengthen the rules for revoking the permit of facilities with a history of violations. The California Legislature must require polluting facilities to provide proof they can pay to clean up contamination both during operations and upon closure. And California must work to ensure that contamination is quickly identified and cleaned-up to the level that truly protects the health and safety of frontline communities.

Exide has exposed gaping holes in California’s regulatory system. It’s a tremendous mistake that we must learn from in order to stop repeating the same cycle of failure and regret. We challenge California to build the systems we need to break this cycle forever, so no one has to live through this kind of harm and injustice. 

If we want to be the state that we pride ourselves to be, one where environmental justice and public health come before polluter profits, we must act now, before it is too late and Quemetco becomes yet another facility allowed to poison generations of families. Again.

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