Environmental Health Justice: Exide Battery Recycling Plant Case Study


Environmental Health Justice: Exide Battery Recycling Plant Case Study 



Naomi J. Antinarelli 


Professor Deike Peters 


Senior Capstone

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

B.A. in Liberal Arts 

Environmental Studies Concentration 





This capstone investigates the significance of the Exide battery recycling plant case study within the contexts of environmental justice, health, and racism. It is situated within the framework of community action and community-based research of scholars such as Robert Bullard, Dorceta Taylor, Laura Pulido, Kate Davies, and Jason Corburn. Highlighting the perspective of community residents and organizations in South East Los Angeles (SELA), this case study examines how communities responded to chronic industrial pollution, advocated for themselves, sought environmental justice, and held corporations and regulatory agencies accountable, thus creating an environmental health justice movement that effectively employed “street science” to challenge corporate environmental crimes and governmental inaction. The Exide battery case demonstrates how environmental justice, health, and racism are interconnected. Community organizing in SELA created an environmental health justice movement that can inspire communities all over the world to engage in community-based science, research, and action that can influence structural change and ultimately address environmental injustice. 


Table of Contents 


Environmental Health Justice: A Case Study of the Exide Battery Recycling Plant……………..4

Case Study Design…………………………………………………………………………..…….5

The Foundations of Environmental Justice, Health and Racism In The U.S…….………………..6

The founding principles of Environmental Justice…….…………………………..………10

Federal Recognition of Environmental Justice……………………………..………..……12

The legacy of Environmental Justice……………………………………………….……..14

Environmental Health: The Built Environment and Public Health……………………..……….15

The Environmental Health Movement………..…………………………………….……16

Love Canal: Meaningful Legislation for Toxic Cleanups…………………………………17 

Environmental Health Science: Challenges and Strategies………………………………19

Community-Based Research Methods: Street Science……………………………….….20

Part II: Exide as a Case Study for Environmental Health Justice…………………………………23 

The Fight for Environmental Justice……………………………………………………..25 

Affected Communities: Neighborhood Marginalization……………….……………….…27

Understanding Environmental Racism: An Intersectional Critical Approach……………………31 

Rethinking Environmental Racism………………………………………………….……34

Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Response vs. The Exide Battery Case………………………….35 

Historical Timeline: Operation and Closure……………….…………………………………….38

Community Activism for the Shutdown of the ExideFacility……………………………40

From Community-Based Activism to Formal Advisory Status……………….…………..45

Corporate and Regulatory Agency Responsibility……………………………………….46 

An Overview of Lead Poisoning…………………………………………………………………49

 Pollution Impact: Lead Poisoning and Cancer Risk……………………………………..50    

Contamination Assessment ……………………………………………………………….52

Community-Based Approaches and Street Science in SELA……………………….…………….55 

           Community-based Research: The Truth Fairy Project……………………………………………….55

Residential Cleanup……………………………………………………………………………………………..64

Collaboration with the Department of Public Health: Community Survey…………………..68

The Fight Continues………………………………………………………………………………………………………..69



Environmental Health Justice: A Case Study of the Exide Battery Recycling Plant

The Exide case study documents an environmental crisis in South East Los Angeles due to chronic industrial pollution. It is a current and on-going example of how industrial pollution is directly tied to environmental health and justice movements. The Exide battery case is briefly described as the toxic lead poisoning of several low-income and Latinx neighborhoods in Southeast LA (SELA) via a lead battery recycling plant that has led to the largest residential cleanup in California’s history. This case demonstrates how the concepts of environmental justice (EJ), health (EH), and racism overlap and create complex outcomes politically, socially, and physiologically. The consequential health effects of industrial pollution are not new phenomena, the relationship between environmental justice and toxics is historical and is an entire field of research and study. Thus, this case study analyzes one of America’s largest and current industrial pollution cases. In this case, community-action is central to the progress made towards environmental health justice in SELA. Exposure to environmental pollution from the lead smelter, Exide, has inspired communities to respond through activism and community-based advocacy. 

This capstone project will demonstrate how the Exide battery case encompasses all three concepts: environmental justice, environmental racism, and environmental health. By creating cross-disciplinary connections in my analysis of the Exide battery case I aim to minimize the gaps in research between the three distinct fields of research. Additionally, this case study provides a detailed analysis and investigation of a local issue that affects many communities.

 The main questions that have inspired this project are: How does the Exide battery case exemplify the intersections of environmental justice, health, and racism? How was it possible for Exide to continue to operate despite numerous and ongoing environmental health violations that put surrounding communities at risk? What strategies were and are used by community organizations, activists, and resident advocates to advance environmental health justice and how successful have they been?  

The purpose of the case study is to reveal how community activism and community-based approaches pave the path towards environmental health justice while highlighting the irreversible outcomes of environmental injustice.  

Case Study Design

This case study integrates archival research and an interview. Archival sources include  blog posts written by members of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a documentary, investigative newspaper articles, media coverage, and governmental agency open access records. This study is situated within the framework of community action and community-based research of scholars such as Robert Bullard, Dorceta Taylor, Laura Pulido, Karen Davies, and Jason Corburn. The perspective of community residents and organizations was influential in my approach to analyzing the Exide battery case. I collect data from newspapers to follow the timeline of the case chronologically. A key source is the Los Angeles Times newspaper because they provided frequent coverage about the Exide battery case. In addition, the LA Mapping Project provided spatial and demographic data.  

The main theoretical inspiration for this case study stems from Jason Corburn’s 2005 book Street Science. Street science employs local and community knowledge in environmental health justice research which inspired me to center and reveal the narratives of residents in SELA. I include the social, political, and physiological aspects of chronic industrial pollution. The study also includes research and background information on the movements and concepts of environmental justice, health, and racism. In addition, I compare the Exide battery case to how the nearby Aliso Canyon Gas Leak was handled. I analyze the roles of the lead smelter, the governmental regulatory agencies, community organizations, and residents involved with the Exide battery case to reveal the importance of community-based approaches in the pursuit of environmental health justice.   

The Foundations of Environmental Justice, Health, and Racism in the  U.S.

The environmental justice movement was born out of the civil rights movement in the ’60s and is considered to be the first movement to demonstrate the intersections of social justice, human rights, environmental pollution, racism, and health. Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for environmental justice via the Civil Rights act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin that sought to guarantee all citizens equal protection under the law (History, 2019). Activists who came after Dr. King used the civil rights act to address environmental health concerns, environmental injustice, and poor environmental conditions in a court of law. Among the first issues raised in the environmental justice movement included waste facility siting and poor sanitation. Dr. King protested against poor housing conditions and poor sanitation in Chicago and Memphis (CDC, 2019). Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that racial inequity, poverty, politics, health, and human rights were inextricably linked. Consequently, environmental justice now encompasses a variety of topics and issues related to the environment and human rights.

During the 1970s, studies of racial and income disparities in relation to hazardous waste exposure laid the groundwork for environmental justice research. One of the most referred to studies in environmental justice was conducted by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ who published a report in 1987 named Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. This report revealed that commercial hazardous-waste facilities were located in communities that had significantly higher proportions of racial minorities (Taylor, 2014). The study found that race was the most potent variable in predicting where waste facilities would be located in comparison to poverty or homeownership (Bullard, 2005 pg. 20). The percentage of people of color (everyone except non-Hispanic whites) was 14.4 percent in zip code areas with no hazardous waste facility; In areas that had three or more facilities 45.6 percent of the population were people of color (eg. incinerators, landfills). People living in these areas began advocating for their communities environmental health in the face of hazardous waste facility sitting.

In 1983 Robert Bullard published the first landmark study of waste dump sitting in Houston Texas. Dr. Bulard is an academic, activist and sociologist, who is well known to be the father of environmental justice. Dr. Bullard’s first study demonstrated that four of the five city incinerators were located in predominantly Black neighborhoods while the fifth was found in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood (Taylor, 2014 pg. 35). Even though Blacks at the time constituted only 27.6% of Houston’s population, 66% of solid waste sites and 77% of municipal landfills were located near predominantly Black schools (Taylor, 2014). Incinerators and waste sites have consequential pollution emissions that adversely affect air quality. Consequently, in 1991, it was found that Black communities in proximity to toxic-waste-emitting sites were disproportionately exposed to higher toxic air releases (Taylor, 2014). 

African American homeowners took action to keep a sanitary landfill out of their neighborhood (Bullard, 2005 pg. 19). The case became a class-action lawsuit now known as the Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. It was the first instance in which civil rights law was used to challenge waste facility siting (Bullard, 2005). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VI both defend citizens’ rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin. These acts were used in a court of law beginning a new era of environmental justice activism. Although the case was not won by citizens it marked the beginning of a new era for environmental justice of self-advocacy through legal terms. 

Bullard’s book Dumping in Dixie, originally published in 1990, explained how unwanted land uses such as toxic dumping sites, chemical plants, hazardous waste facilities, and landfills, have been placed purposely in areas of “least resistance” (poor marginalized communities) resulting in environmental burdens and/or hazards (Bullard, 2000). Dumping in Dixie demonstrated that environmental inequalities in the U.S. exist through conducting case studies and household surveys. The household surveys revealed community perspectives on activism, environmental justice strategies, and self-identified socioeconomic influences. The methodology of collecting local knowledge from residents became a strategy used by environmental justice researchers. Bullard’s work emphasizes community-based research through the use of interviews, household surveys, collected geographical statistics and public records (government documents, archival records, etc), which collectively construct a strong argument for the increased necessity of environmental justice research, activism, and advocacy. 

Environmental Justice covers many topics and issues, however, environmental racism is a prominent theme in both environmental justice activism and research. Bullard maintains that black and brown communities, because of their economic and political vulnerability, host locally unwanted land uses and environmental hazards. These communities are likely to suffer greater health risks from these facilities than the general population (Bullard, 2000 p. xiv). According to the environmental justice movement, all Americans, regardless of whether they are white or black, rich or poor, are entitled to equal protection under the law as well as quality education, employment, and housing, and the health of physical environments (Bullard, 2000). 

One hazardous waste facility siting that correlates with class and socioeconomic discrimination is that of a farm-worker community in Kettleman City located in the San Joaquin Valley California where 95 percent of residents are of Latino background and where the largest toxic dumpsite west of Alabama is located (Cole and Foster, 2001 pg. 2). The dump was created in the late 1970s in close proximity to a residential community, however, the community was not made aware of its construction and was placed in that location without their consent which is true of many toxic dump sites in the U.S. (Cole and Foster, 2001; Taylor, 2014; Bullard, 2005). After Kettleman city residents found out that a new incinerator was to be constructed on-site, the community began to organize against its construction. In 1988, community residents formed El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio which translates to People for Clean Air and Water (Cole and Foster, 2001 pg. 3). The residents performed their own research which led them to the Cerrell Report (1984) written for the California Waste Management Board. The report suggested to companies and localities who sought to build new garbage incinerators, to locate them in rural communities, poor communities, and communities whose residents had low educational levels (Cole and Foster, 2001 pg. 3). The report had a profound influence on the decision making process of waste management companies. For instance, all three of California’s largest toxic waste dumps are located in communities of color (Cole and Foster, 2001). 

The founding principles of Environmental Justice 

The collaboration of marginalized and racial minority groups in the fight for environmental justice became more common as the movement grew. Activists realized they’d be more effective if they worked together (Taylor, 2014 pg. 70). In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington DC with over 650 participants from all fifty states and several additional countries (Taylor, 2014). During the Summit, the 17 founding Principles of Environmental Justice were written which now serve as a definitive document for the grassroots environmental justice movement. 


Federal Recognition of Environmental Justice 

Up until 1992, many studies, consistent activist efforts, and community-based organizing  articulated the importance of the environmental justice movement. Scholars like Robert Bullard and grassroots activists like Hazel Johnson ignited the movement and paved the way for the environmental justice movement to gain federal recognition

Hazel M. Johnson is known as the mother of environmental justice for her dedicated activism in the Southside of Chicago. She advocated for environmental health justice in her neighborhood surrounded by landfills, industrial buildings, sewage-treatment plants. These environmental hazards coincided with high levels of cancer and health problems of residents. Her neighborhood is located in what is called the “toxic doughnut” because so many people died of cancer and environmentally related illnesses (Getlin, 1993; Ramirez, 2011). Her efforts led her to found the People for Community Recovery Incorporated (PFCRI), a non-profit, that fought environmental racism in Altgeld Gardens. PFCRI is one of the oldest African American community based environmental organizations in the Midwest. Community organizations have contributed to the meaningful participation of residents in environmental justice legislation and political change. 

The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice was created to address the concerns in the National Law Journal special issue. Created in 1992, the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) coordinates the Agency efforts to address the needs of vulnerable populations by decreasing environmental burdens, increasing environmental benefits, and working collaboratively to build healthy, sustainable communities (EPA, 2017). 

According to the official Environmental Protection Agency definition, environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless or race, ethnicity, income, national origin or education level with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”; fair treatment includes protection from economic disempowerment, disproportionate burdens of human health & environmental impacts of pollution or other environmental hazards (ie. industrial, municipal, commercial) (Gavin et al., 1999). However, the fight for environmental justice still continues due to the fact that the U.S. functions as a corporate-driven and capitalistic system producing environmental pollution, hazardous waste, and environmental inequities. The EPA is tasked with handling many aspects of the environment, withstanding changes in administration, and is ultimately funded and governed by the state. Therefore, the EPA as an institution does not necessarily reflect the needs, desires, demands, and activism of the communities affected by environmental racism, inequality, and pollution. Nonetheless, the formation of the EJ office within the EPA was a historical success. 

The Legacy of Environmental Justice


One of the main goals of environmental justice is to respond to the disproportionate amount of environmental burdens and hazards on lower-income communities who are predominantly of racial/ethnic minority status. The United States is a highly industrialized nation, therefore, the industrialization of urban spaces resulting in economic prosperity for some and unhealthy environments for many. Environmental Justice is not only a movement but encompasses a legacy of activism, research, and grassroots efforts to bring attention to environmental inequality caused by racism, classism, and discrimination. Those who have birthed the movement have predominantly been those who have been affected by environmental injustice often being those of low socioeconomic status and/or people of color.

Environmental Justice research includes studying the patterns of discrimination in low-income and minority areas that have been studied by scholars such as Robert Bullard, Dorceta E. Taylor, Kate Davies, and Jason Corburn. These scholars conclusively found that environmental hazards in poor Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities are intentional, resulting in increased environmental burdens and harm of marginalized and poor communities of color. 

It is important to understand the distinction between Environmentalism and environmental justice. Environmentalism focuses on creating awareness about the importance of the environment in terms of the natural world in which concerns humans, centering on how people treat the environment and how to protect the natural world (animals, plant life, ecosystems) whereas environmental justice speaks to the issues of toxic pollution, environmental health, socio-economic injustice and environmental racism (Bullard, 1993).

Environmental justice movements connect citizen activism to the concept of environmental health by affirming that each human has a civil right to a healthy environment, environmental protection, democratic processes, and access to basic resources (food, water, energy). 

Environmental Health: The Built Environment and Public Health 

The scholarship in environmental health is small in comparison to that of environmental justice and environmental racism. Most of the research in environmental health focused on the biochemical, biological, and scientific aspects of environmental health. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), environmental health is defined as “all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person that can potentially affect health” (WHO, n.d.). Additionally, According to the American Public Health Association, Environmental health focuses on human health, the relationships between people and their environment as well as safe and healthy communities (American Public Health Association, 2019). Environmental health is the science and practice of preventing toxic exposure that can lead to adverse health effects and illness. To do so, researchers must identify and evaluate environmental pollution or hazardous substances while also limiting human exposure to hazardous/toxic physical, chemical, and biological agents in air, water, soil, and food (Davies, 2013).

The built environment makes up a large part of our modern surroundings in which humans spend most of their time. The average American spends about 90 percent of their time indoors, therefore, one’s immediate surroundings have a substantial influence on one’s health (Davies, 2013 pg. xvi). The Human-made environment, also known as the built environment, includes neighborhoods, cities, industrial infrastructure, buildings, parks, and more. The overlaying of the natural and built environment creates a praxis in which human health is dependent on the variables in their environment. The environmental health movement centers the relationship between human health and external environmental factors highlighting that our species is not separate from, or superior to, the natural world (Davies, 2013). 

The Environmental Health Movement 

The right to a healthy environment has historically been contested by those who are in positions of power that prioritize economic gain over human welfare (ie. large corporations, industries). Environmental health activists and residents have met opposition when facing large institutions and corporations when seeking environmental health justice. Environmental Health (EH) is both an environmental and social issue that prompts us to think about the kind of world we are in and how our own livelihoods are formed. EH movements challenge the idea that money is more valuable than public health, equity, or welfare. Hazardous or toxic exposure in air, water, and soil can greatly impact a community’s ability to be healthy. To improve public health policies, programs, and governing organizations must reduce toxic, chemical and hazardous environmental exposures. Kate Davies’ book The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement is one of the most significant books in the field of environmental health. She demonstrates the differences between the environmental justice movement and the environmental health movement while also noting the connections between them. Environmental public health is regarded as a single inclusive discipline with its roots in prevention and social justice (Davies, 2013 pg. 34).

Currently, there are three categories: environmental health, public health, and occupational health. The environmental health movement focuses on the environmental injustices that relate directly to human health. The environmental health movement at its core advocates for the established principle that every individual regardless of income, race, location, or other identifying characteristics has the right to a healthy environment. To adequately address the issues of environmental health, researchers in the field must include a critical approach that includes an analysis of how environmental racism relates to health disparities. Environmental racism has been identified as one of the primary causal factors of disproportionate environmental pollution in marginalized communities. Therefore, future consideration for the movement must consider bridging the gap between environmental racism and health research.

Love Canal: Meaningful Legislation for Toxic Cleanups

The crisis at Love Canal in Niagara Falls NY (1978) marked the beginning of a movement

that solely focused on environmental health (Fletcher, 2003). A mother living in Love Canal at the time, initiated community organizing and activism to bring attention to the environmental health concerns associated with living on a toxic waste dumpsite. One of the most crucial outcomes of community organizing at Love Canal was the enactment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) (Davies, 2013). CERCLA has lead to the cleanup of many superfund sites since its enactment, however, many sites are yet to be put on the national priority list which qualifies sites for funding. In addition many sites that are considered hazardous waste sites do not qualify for funding under CERCLA. For example, the Exide battery recycling plant located in Vernon CA is known to be a toxic waste site but because the pollution was not due to solely toxic dumping it does not meet the requirements of becoming a superfund site. CERCLA initiated government funding towards toxic site cleanups, however, the Exide battery case and many other cases in the U.S. demonstrate that CERCLA only begins to address toxic pollution remediation and residential cleanup.

In 1991, a National Academies of Sciences report a conservative estimate that “4.1 million people live within one mile of the 725 superfund sites and half of this number were women of child-bearing age, children or elderly,” (Davies, 2013 pg. 65). The relationship between environmental health risks and superfund sites initiated activists to call for action surrounding the issue of toxics. The federal government created the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to investigate health problems at toxic waste dumps. Throughout the environmental health movement, communities have been met with inaction from the federal government and its associated agencies. For example, ATSDR was directed by Vernon Houk who denied that toxic chemicals could have serious effects on human health despite significant research suggesting otherwise (Davies, 2013 pg. 66;) Thus, corruption in governmental agencies prevented any real engagement with environmental health justice. Consequently, the environmental health movement continues to exist because of community activism, self-advocacy, and passionate self-initiated researchers in the field.

Environmental Health Science: Challenges and Strategies

The U.S. environmental health movement has been met with resistance from those 

who claim that there is a lack of scientific evidence that proves causation between toxics and negative health effects. Advocates in the field of environmental health agree that advocating for precaution is a principal strategy “asserting that it’s morally wrong to postpone policy decisions because of a lack of complete scientific data” (Davies, 2013 p. 151). The prevention of environmental diseases begins with the problem of pollution and aims to remediate the harms of toxic emissions. Environmental justice also functions in a similar way by working at the root of injustice. Some root causes have been identified as profit maximization from corporations, technical inefficiencies, and lack of environmental regulation enforcement. 

There are two main classifications of sciences that study environmental causation: toxicology and epidemiology (Davies, 2013). These two types of sciences rely on indirect methods which make it difficult to prove strong associations or correlations, the specificity of the exposure, and adverse health effects (Davies, 2013). These classifications for credible scientific evidence are difficult in cases of environmental health justice because “the same health effect must be reported in different studies, in different places, by different researchers at different times” to be considered as strong evidence for environmental causation. If legislators or CEO’s only relied on “science” and seek validation of direct causation, the ethical implications of not taking preventative or precautionary action become an issue. When those in positions of power do not take preventative measures communities are either denied protection, the right to know, or experience negative environmental health conditions. Additionally, there have been numerous instances where scientists, politicians, and corporate interests have deliberately distorted and hidden the scientific truth to further their privatized interests, going against the health & welfare of the people affected by toxins and pollution (Davies, 2013). 

Community-Based Research Methods: Street Science

Community-based research in environmental justice is evolving and is considered

 a crucial part of creating integrative solutions to remedy the harm done by environmental injustice.  Community-based research is a method that both the environmental justice and environmental health movements have used to fight injustice and call for action. To create social change and improve local environments, “Many local environmental health and justice groups have had to become their own research experts and learn how to conduct scientific studies in their communities” (Davies, 2013 pg. 185). Conventional/traditional risk assessments conducted by public officials in environmental health have been criticized by community movements for disregarding environmental injustice and racism. Consequently, communities took their health into their own hands by engaging in their own research and data collection, collecting their own soil samples, community outreach campaigns, and forming coalitions.

In the case of Exide’s industrial pollution, community-based research has been an essential part of the community’s environmental justice movement. Community members contracted their own researchers from USC, did their own soil samples, and advocated for their illness experiences to be included as evidence for their case. This kind of self-advocacy has historically been one of the most integral parts of the environmental justice movement. 

A Berkeley scholar, Jason Corburn, published a book called Street Science in which he thoroughly demonstrates the applied study of community knowledge and environmental health justice. One of the main elements of street science is that communities must be represented and integrated into the investigations that pertain to them. In the case of residential pollution, it is important that community residents be included in public health research, scientific data collection, site remediation, political processes, legal action, and the outcomes of the entire process. To adequately address the concerns of communities when it comes to their health and environments, community members must be centered in the decision-making processes and their requests must be heard and considered by public agencies (Corburn, 2005). 

Local knowledge is a critical part of an environmental health investigation because the experiences of community members offer valuable information that can represent their needs and concerns in the investigation. Local knowledge is defined as information/knowledge that is held by members of the community (often identity group/place-specific) acquired through experience or cultural tradition and is accredited by lived experience. Local knowledge is represented in public narratives, community stories, courts, and media (Corburn, 2005 pg. 51). One difference between professional knowledge and local knowledge is that scientific consensus of causal factors is not required. In other words, street science identifies the experiences of local people as a form of knowledge and data. The power dynamics between local knowledge and professional knowledge interplays in public decision making which consists of who gets to define problems, offer evidence, be heard, and design solutions (Corburn, 2005 pg. 64). Street Science is the result of local knowledge holders advocating for themselves through their own investigations, lived experiences, research, problem-solving, and activism. Relations between professionals and community members benefit from the inclusion of local knowledge in efforts towards environmental health justice. Public health methodologies, strategies, and professional perspectives can help resolve environmental health issues that are identified by concerned communities (Environmental Justice, 1999). Combining local knowledge with professional techniques can address community health outcomes, risks, exposures, and disparities.


Part II: Exide as a Case Study for Environmental Health Justice 

The Exide battery case exemplifies the complex intersections of environmental justice, health, and racism. Environmental justice (EJ) affirms that all people regardless of their zip code, income, race, or ethnicity are deserving of an environment that does not cause health problems and that everyone should have a meaningful voice in policy decisions that affect them (Davies, 2013). Despite over 30 years of activism and 20 years of Executive Order 12898, poor communities and communities of color are still living in environments that disproportionately contain environmental hazards (Pulido, 2016). The communities of SELA are largely working-class migrant Latinx families who live with excessive sources of environmental pollution in comparison to other parts of Los Angeles County. For the purpose of this case study, South East LA is defined as the area that is made up of the following cities and neighborhoods: Boyle Heights, Maywood, Unincorporated East Los Angeles, Bell, Huntington Park, Vernon and Commerce. South East LA is a relatively impoverished area with a large Latinx population and is known as a low-income area of LA County. 

The concentration of Latinx populations living below the poverty level and in close proximity to an environmental hazard in LA is an established truth. Robert Bullard and other scholars confirmed that Latinx communities have historically faced disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards such as Superfund sites, toxic releases, water dischargers, air polluters, brownfields, and hazardous waste sites.  In addition, there are numerous sources of toxic pollution from industries and from highway/freeway overpasses, air pollution, and train railways. As a result, hazardous environmental polluters lie in the midst of SELA communities who are economically and socially marginalized.

The Fight for Environmental Justice

Communities in SELA  are fighting for environmental justice in the face of perpetual industrial pollution, environmental racism, lead poisoning, and lack of regulation enforcement from governmental agencies. SELA communities have been forced to organize, create urgency for, and demand an adequate response from both corporate polluters and regulatory agencies through protests, demonstrations, community peer education, activism, and community-based research. In particular, communities have advocated for their involvement in local politics concerning the hazardous emissions of the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant because their livelihoods depend on it. Public concern and organizing for environmental justice in relation to the lead smelter started in the late 1990s and was reinvigorated in 2007 when Exide increased the facility’s production. Residents witnessed dust and ash fallout in their local neighborhoods, thus, their concerns materialized into community organizing (Johnston et al., 2019b). The legacy of community activism in SELA has been branded as “Fighting for life.” For these communities the fight for environmental justice against industrial polluters like Exide, is to protect their loved ones, children, and future generations (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015). 

One of the leading organizations in SELA, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ),  has been advocating for environmental protection and justice since 2001. EYCEJ works on a variety of issues including, railway exhaust, industrial pollution, environmental legislation, air quality, reproductive justice, environmental health, and environmental justice. On a consistent basis for many years, community organizations and individual community members organized weekly community meetings which translated into various action-based initiatives. For instance, EYCEJ launched numerous workshops about environmental health and justice that created educational opportunities for local residents. Air pollution 101 teaches residents about local air pollution sources (including Exide) and the negative health effects associated with air pollution. The Ambiente de Mujer campaign connects environmental justice and reproductive health by teaching women how to prevent and reduce toxic exposure. Policy Advocacy 101 educates participants on legislative processes, policy advocacy, and environmental government agencies. Public Speaking 101 aims to prepare community members to speak at city council meetings about environmental health and justice. In addition, EYCEJ launched a Toxic Bike Tour in 2015 to connect residents with their local environment by visiting toxic waste sites such as Exide. EYCEJ models an effective community-based approach by centering local knowledge in environmental health justice campaigns and movements. Community organizations in SELA such as EYCEJ, “are acting on hypotheses—often developed over years of living with environmental pollution and disease—organizing community insights, employing professional techniques, and fundamentally altering the way environmental health-science is practiced” (Corburn, 2005, p. 202). 

The area of SELA is complex due to the intersections of industrial and residential zoning. Though the city in which the facility is located is not a residential area, the immediate surrounding cities are highly residential. Figure 4. provides a visual of the location and proximity of the lead smelter to residential areas in SELA.

Affected Communities: Neighborhood Marginalization

The affected communities in SELA contain many similar demographics including a high percentage of Latinx population, low educational attainment (less than high school completion), and low yearly mean income. 

Figure 5.

Population Statistics of SELA, City of LA and Porter Ranch

City/Neighborhood Population Race/


Mean Income Educational





City of LA 3,990,456 52.4% White $58,385 32% LHS 2.82
Vernon 94 92.6% Latinx $81,279 40.9% LHS 3.4
Commerce 12,583 93.4% Latinx $46,245 54.2% LHS 3.6
Maywood 28,083 96.4% Latinx $41,203 70.4% LHS 4.1
Bell 36,667 90.7% Latinx $40,336 64.9% LHS 3.9
Huntington Park 61,370 95.1% Latinx $39,185 67.8% LHS 3.9
Boyle Heights 92,756 94% Latinx 33,235 68.8% LHS 3.8
East LA 125,897 96.7% Latinx 38,621 66.1% LHS 3.9
Porter Ranch 24.923 60.9% White $121,428 51.4% BA 3.0


Note. LHS stands for less than a High School education. BA stands for has received a bachelor’s degree. (Los Angeles Times, 2020; United States Census Bureau, 2019). 

Figure 5 provides demographic information for the communities affected by the Exide battery case and for Porter Ranch, the community affected by the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak. All SELA communities have a Latinx population above 90% which is high for LA County. SELA also includes a large number of undocumented residents who cannot vote and may refrain from protests due to their status. Local governance may interact differently with communities who cannot vote. In SELA educational attainment and median income is very low in comparison to the city of LA and Porter Ranch which signifies social and economic marginalization. Low educational attainment is associated with a range of challenges including lack of health insurance, poor health, low-income wages, job insecurity, unstable housing, unmet medical needs, poor nutrition, stress, few social resources, and neighborhood quality (Center on Society and Health, 2015). Waste facilities historically and purposely located themselves in neighborhoods with low-educational attainment because they believed communities who were poor and had low-educational attainment would be less likely to resist (Cole and Foster, 2001 pg. 3). Similarly, Exide may have believed they would meet less resistance because the surrounding communities are poor, have low-educational attainment, and are mostly Latinx, however, affected communities, despite their pre-existing challenges, were resilient in their fight for environmental justice. 

Community organizations such as East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and Communities for a Better Environment have articulated that their communities face environmental discrimination from many polluters in SELA including Exide. Environmental discrimination takes many forms, from deliberate targeting of minority communities, non-enforcement of regulations and laws, and corporate irresponsibility to the exclusion of people of color from participation in environmental policy decisions. Although, race has historically been the largest marker for environmental discrimination, ER is not solely confined to race. Because race, class, and socioeconomic status are intertwined, environmental racism is also intertwined with other forms of discrimination. To understand environmental racism, it is important to incorporate other identifiers of marginalization such as socioeconomic status, migrant status, education level, income, and language proficiency. 

The pollution of Exide compounded the pre-existing challenges of residents who live in Commerce, Bell, Maywood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, and Vernon. For instance, the percentage (30%) of the population living in poverty for these areas is a lot higher than the percentage countywide (18%) (LAPH, 2017, p.4). Many residents are now living with chronic health conditions including lead poisoning, asthma and cancer. Among adults (18-64 yrs), 16% do not have health insurance compared to 12% countywide (LAPH, 2017). In addition, 8% of children have been diagnosed with asthma, meaning, many children may be living with both asthma and lead poisoning which further puts children at risk for lifelong health challenges (LAPH, 2017). The residents, and families of these communities are already burdened with poverty, low educational attainment, racism, and poor health; Exide has perpetually caused harm that will last generations. The consequences of Exide’s pollution has led to a lower quality of life for so many families, children, mothers, elderly, residents, and communities. The reality of so many has changed drastically for the worse as these communities continue to advocate for environmental justice. 

Unfortunately, adverse health effects of lead poisoning are developmental damage, memory problems, and learning disabilities which can impact educational attainment. In other words, lead poisoning affects a person’s capacity to develop normally without behavioral changes and attain educational advancement. Community members seek to address the health impacts of Exide’s lead exposure and have requested the DTSC to pursue Exide for medical costs associated with Exide’s chronic pollution that has increased cancer risk and lead exposure in SELA (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015). Community members are demanding that the social impacts of Exide’s pollution be addressed with funding for early childhood development programs, nutrition programs, youth employment, re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated, support services for educational attainment, and programs that help with behavioral changes (Lopez, 2016c). 

The Exide facility knowingly burdened their neighbors with harmful emissions causing an environmental health crisis. Exide, whether unconsciously or not, polluted vulnerable and marginalized communities, this is known as environmental racism (Pulido, 2000; Bullard, 1994). The communities affected by Exide’s pollution were neglected and the response to their suffering has been delayed by regulatory agencies and Exide Technologies. The consequences of elevated cancer risk and lead poisoning further burdens SELA communities with additional healthcare costs, as well as generational trauma from excess deaths, stress, and the physiological effects. 

Understanding Environmental Racism: An Intersectional Critical Approach

Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate, and exploit others. . . Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of the attitude. 

—National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group

Exide Technologies has committed environmental crimes in more than seven states, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being exposed to harmful amounts of lead and arsenic. Companies like Exide must be held accountable for their environmental crimes in every instance of toxic pollution; however, Exide is still operating in seven different states despite numerous violations at many different facilities across the country. It is clear that Exide cannot operate without emitting toxic pollutants. Additionally, it is not a coincidence that Exide has been able to stay in business after so many cases of non-adherence to environmental regulations. The systemic nature of racism produces outcomes that are oppressive and damaging for poor communities of color. Exide’s behavior demonstrates a lack of concern for communities of color. Additionally, racial discrimination exists in the systems that are built to protect communities from environmental harm which include regulatory agencies. Race, class, migrant status, educational attainment, and skin color are all factors that contribute to how institutions including corporations interact with communities. Residents have made the claim that if they had been white and rich that they would not be fighting for their right to breathe. In the documentary Unsettled (2015) a local activist affirms “No one’s coming to save us. We need to fight for ourselves.” For instance, if SELA were made up of affluent neighborhoods, perhaps regulatory agencies would have strictly and more expediently enforced environmental regulations on industrial facilities such as Exide. Many residents connect their demographics to the response of regulatory agencies because of their delay in intervention and their involvement in allowing Exide to operate without proper environmental controls. 

EYCEJ engaged their community with environmental justice activism and education which greatly influenced the environmental justice movement against Exide. EYCEJ acknowledges that the environmental health crisis they are facing is inextricably tied to race, class, socioeconomic status, migrant status, and zip code. The people of the affected communities are self-aware in the sense that they critically analyze the relationship between their demographic status’ and Exide’s chronic pollution. EYCEJ in particular has pointed out that pre-existing challenges that their community face (e.g., poverty, migrant status, ESL) are factors that contribute to the environmental racism that exists in SELA. 

Exide operated without proper environmental controls and is now identified as a toxic waste site (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015; Los Angeles Times, 2014). Uncontrolled signifies lack of regulation, corporate non-adherence to environmental standards, and chronic pollution all of which lead to poor environmental health for those living in the surrounding area of the sites. The issue of uncontrolled toxic waste sites is not new. Figure 6. Confirms that uncontrolled toxic waste sites in SELA has been an issue for over 33 years.


Rethinking Environmental Racism 

Pulido (2015) analyzed the Exide battery case through the frameworks of White Privilege

 and White Supremacy and revealed important insights about how environmental racism exists in relation to urban ecologies. Pulido found that traditional approaches to racial epistemologies such as White privilege and White supremacy often imply a “deliberate set of acts infused with racial animus or intent, most people understand racism as a form of personal prejudice rather than as structural or systemic. When it comes to environmental racism there is a tendency to think of it a singular instance of injustice rather than an outcome of institutions and systems within a white supremacist society. It is critical to understand that environmental racism is a product of a larger system that discriminates against Black and Brown communities for many generations. The Exide case is no exception. In fact, it illustrates the extent to which environmental racism continues today. The culprits are not only the board members of Exide but also the regulatory agencies who did not fight for corporate compliance from the beginning. Ultimately, the main culprit is the infrastructural forces that reinforce white supremacy and white privilege. Pulido clarifies that non-compliance by the polluter illuminates the larger regulatory culture that is constituted by a racial formation that rewards white privilege.”Exide’s actions suggest that it deems its neighbors racially expendable”(Pulido, 2015 p. 814). Exide’s neighbors who are primarily Latinx immigrants are losing the right to breathe while the corporation maximizes profits. Pulido expands the definition of environmental racism by including class and migrant status in the racialization of SELA communities. Furthermore, in general, the Latinx immigrant working class is socially and politically regarded as subordinate to the white working-class (Pulido, 2015). Environmental racism is produced by a multitude of discriminatory practices in which the social, cultural, and political spheres are involved. Consequently, multiple forms of racism are at play in the Exide battery case. Environmental racism is not the product of personal bias, rather, a system of powerful corporations, agencies, and governments that neglect vulnerable populations, consisting primarily of low-income people of color. 


Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Response vs. The Exide Battery Case

On October 23, 2015, gas escaping from a well within the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility was detected by SoCalGas Company. The local residents of Porter Ranch reported experiencing nausea, headaches, and nosebleeds from the gas leak (Abram, 2015). Shortly afterward, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a state-of-emergency and offered temporary residential evacuation accommodations. The situation was handled in a prompt and immediate manner. The relocation relief package included (Wilcox, 2015): 

Incentives to landlords to enter into short-term leases, including premiums, if necessary to provide comparable housing.

  • Immediate cash compensation for those who cannot be immediately moved, upon request, to comparable housing.
  • Provision of out-of-pocket health-related costs to relocated residents or those declining relocation to assess current or ongoing health effects.
  • Providing moving companies to help relocate residents.
  • Private security patrols 24/7 for vacant residences 
  • Provision of maintenance and landscaping services for vacated properties.
  • Monetary consideration and accommodation for residents who receive assisted nursing services in their homes.
  • The cessation of billing all residents in the affected area for natural gas services until the leak is fixed.

The relief package was comprehensive and included extensive monetary compensation. The relocation relief package that residents of Porter Ranch received would be dream-like for SELA communities. In a little over a month the leak was permanently stopped. Residents of SELA clearly noticed the difference in Government response time between the notably White and high-income city of Porter Ranch and the response time to the Exide Battery Case. For the Porter Ranch people, “they moved mountains,” said East L.A. resident Amelia Vallejo, whose youngest son, Michael, 5, has severe developmental disabilities and is hard of hearing. “We’ve been here for years and look at our kids … they’re damaged for life (Lopez S., 2016). 

On February 23, 2019, Porter Ranch received a settlement of $120 million to fund a long-term health study and address the health consequences of the environmental disaster (GrigoryAnts, 2019). Gov. Jerry Brown went and visited the site to engage with the residents of Porter Ranch when he declared an emergency  (Lopez S.,2016). While this case is undoubtedly deserving of an immediate response, it shows the willingness of public figures such as the Governor to favor certain communities over others. The Exide Battery Recycling plant was illegally and hazardously emitting toxic amounts of lead and arsenic for decades. In contrast, the Aliso Canyon gas leak was halted within two months (Los Angeles Times, 2016). The Aliso Canyon gas leak was almost certainly an accident, whereas, Exide’s pollution was not. aThe incident near Porter Ranch deserved immediate action but so did the residents of SELA. The complaints of headaches, asthma, and other health conditions are familiar to SELA communities who’ve spent decades fighting their own large scale local environmental health hazard. 

One difference between the incident in Aliso Canyon and the situation in SELA is that there are multi-generational and permanent health effects from Exide’s pollution while residents of Aliso Canyon may never experience permanent damage to their bodies. For instance, Amelia Vallejo, a resident in East LA, has six children who were all born premature (Nazaryan, 2016). Her youngest son, Michael, was born with severe developmental delays and has difficulty hearing and seeing. At the time of the interview, her son was five years old and still required diapers. Vallejo explained that her kids don’t play in the yard because their soil lead levels were more than 1,400 PPM and still had not been cleaned up (80 ppm is considered safe) (Nazaryan, 2016).

The settlement for SELA communities from Exide was a mere 7.7 million in comparison to the $120 million given to Porter Ranch (Grigoryants, 2019). For over 15 years, residents of East Los Angeles have been waiting for the Exide to be shut down. The prompt and strong response to Aliso Canyon supported the claims of SELA community organizations about environmental racism and discrimination. Governor Brown never visited SELA nor did he declare an emergency for the Exide battery case. East LA deserves the same urgency that was given to the residents of Porter Ranch. 

Historical Timeline: Operation and Closure

The lead-acid battery recycling plant in Vernon, California opened in 1922 (Delgadillo, 2018). In 1981, the Department of Health Services (DHS) which was the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Predecessor, issued an interim status to the facility that operated under Gould Incorporated at the time (GNB). An interim status temporarily allows the company to operate while the company applies for a permanent permit; Facilities who operate under a temporary permit do so with modest oversight and regulations than that of a permanent status facility. The facility underwent operations with an interim status for over a decade as GNB with  numerous environmental violations (Johnston et al., 2019b; Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015).

In November 2000, Exide Technologies officially bought ownership over the facility and continued to operate under an interim status while expanding their operations. Exide increased the amount of batteries processed on-site which has been linked to the increase of lead emissions (California EPA and DTSC, 2015; Johnston et al., 2019b). The Exide facility was used to recover lead from automotive batteries primarily as well as other lead-bearing materials both from off-site and on-site locations(California EPA and DTSC, 2015). After Exide Tech. assumed ownership, violations continued. Documentation of the facilities negligence includes lead and acid leaks, an overflowing toxic sludge pond, holes in the roof, illegal disposal of hazardous waste, illegal storage of hazardous waste and illegal transport of hazardous waste (Johnston et al., 2019b; Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015; United States Attorney’s Office, 2015). There were several agencies that possessed the responsibility of enforcing environmental regulations of industrial facilities in the area including the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the Southcoast Air Quality Management Department (AQMD), and more broadly the California Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA). The DTSC and AQMD were the primary regulatory agencies that oversaw the Exide facility for the duration of its operations. Public concern grew when local neighborhoods identified large quantities of dust and ash fallout. Community organizations including Mothers of East Los Angeles, Resurrection Church, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Communities for a Better Environment among others, began to identify potential health risks from living near an uncontrolled lead smelter (i.e. Exide) (Johnston et al., 2019b). 

The lead smelter released large amounts of lead and arsenic into the air and soil for over two decades affecting more than six communities (Johnson et. al, 2019b; Barboza and Poston, 2018). Although there were many different companies that operated at the facility located in Vernon, Exide continuously did not adhere to environmental regulations despite over 100 violation notices from the AQMD and DTSC (Barboza, 2015a). According to a community representative on the Exide Advisory Group, community residents have been making the case for environmental justice against the Vernon facilities air pollution for more than two decades. 

One of the primary functions of Exide Tech. is to recycle batteries, a process that many would associate with the positive connotations of recycling or reusing materials. At the Exide facility in Vernon they recycled 23,000 to 41,000 batteries daily with an average production of 100,000 to 120,000 tons of lead per year (Negrete, 2014). This is equivalent to recycling approximately 11 million car batteries, which is about the same number of used batteries generated in California annually.

The irony of the Exide Case is that the process of recycling lead batteries is a pollution ridden enterprise in which the main purpose is not to promote sustainability but rather to recover the valuable lead inside the batteries for maximum profit. Exide uses sustainability rhetoric to create a platform for themselves that seems eco-friendly, sustainable, and safe. However, their irresponsible behavior regarding environmental regulations, toxic levels of emissions, and working conditions reveals the true nature of the business (Chittick, 2017).  

Community Activism for the Shutdown of the Exide Facility

The residents of the affected communities have advocated for themselves through grassroots community-based strategizing including self-published media releases, interviews with LA Times, a documentary release, lead poisoning research, soil-sampling, policy change advocacy, community workshops, and training sessions to enact change. The basis for which the community has been able to succeed in their movement towards environmental health justice is grassroots organizing on all levels, locally, regionally, state-wide, and nation-wide. Exide has repeatedly violated health and safety standards contributing to the contamination of numerous communities including South East Los Angeles, California; Frisco, Texas; Muncie, Indiana; Salina, Kansas; Bristol, Tennessee; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Forest City, Missouri (Christensen & Garrison, 2013). Exide has left a trail of pollution and contamination across the entire country. 

Exide Technologies is one of the largest lead-acid battery producers, distributors, and recyclers in the world. The communities of SELA are facing a multinational, billion-dollar company that continues to operate in seven states despite the fact that Exide alone has “posed a higher cancer risk to more people than any of the more than 450 regulated facilities in Southern California in the last 25 years” (Christensen & Garrison, 2013, n.p.). 

Not until 2012 did the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) get involved in the Exide case. CDPH’s research found that nearly 300 children under six years old living near the Exide plant had elevated lead levels in their blood (Barboza and Poston. 2018). In early 2013, AQMD released a health risk assessment (HRA) from Exide showing that the facility was causing a high cancer risk for 110,000  and “chronic hazards” to more than 250,000 residents in Southeast Los Angeles primarily due to its arsenic emissions (Environ International Corporation, & Air Quality Management Department,2013; Delgadillo, 2018). The HRA also indicated that the facility posed a maximum individual cancer risk for full-time employees working on-site (300 ft. radius); air regulators also asserted that the facility poses a maximum chronic hazard for the respiratory system (Negrete, 2014). That same year the DTSC ordered that Exide Technologies test the soil of the 39 homes and one preschool closest to the facility. The results confirmed that lead found in the soil test was especially dangerous for children and pregnant women who are more vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure (Negrete, 2014). Affected communities organized protests and marches outside the Exide facility; they demanded that the facility be shut down. More and more residents were becoming aware of their own health risks associated with Exide’s toxic emissions and demanded that the DTSC and AQMD shut it down. 

The environmental health justice movement in SELA arose from the labor, participation, advocacy, and activism of residents who had to fight for their right to breathe clean air and live without toxic contamination. For example, one of the hashtags used in EYCEJ social media activism used #WeAreJustTryingToBreathe #YouthInAction in photos of protests and marches (Negrete, 2017). 

Despite the confirmed health risk, the Exide facility continued to operate with an interim permit. On January 14, 2014, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) traveled to a hearing held by the DTSC in Sacramento to advocate on behalf of local communities for regulation on industrial polluters in L.A. The communities outraged over the lack of urgency in legislative and regulatory agency response as well as the continued operation of the Exide facility. They advocated for two Bills (SB 712, SB 812). Senate Bill 712 requires hazardous waste facilities operating an interim permit either be approved by DTSC for a final permit or shutdown operations (Negrete, 2014). This bill was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown which initiated the shutdown of the Exide Vernon facility. Senate Bill 812 was not signed into law and would have required facilities handling hazardous waste to request a permit renewal from DTSC at least two years prior to the expiration date of the permit. Senate Bill 712 was a huge success for the environmental justice of SELA. 

Mark! Lopez the executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice made a powerful statement reflecting on the struggle against Exide (Lopez, 2016a):

We, along with other community allies, have had to push this Exide issue every step of the way, moving the California EPA, moving the AQMD, moving the CA DTSC, moving the governor, and even the Mayor of LA. We continue to have to push.

In March 2015, Exide agreed to shut down permanently to avoid facing federal criminal prosecution for environmental crimes (Los Angeles Times, 2015). The non-prosecution agreement was formed by the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO). The agreement included statements such as, “Exide admits that it committed felony violations… Exide accepts and acknowledges responsibility for such criminal conduct” (USAO, 2015). Exide admitted to committing environmental crimes. In exchange for non-prosecution under this agreement, Exide agreed to pay for all violations, investigate the extent of contamination, permanently shut down operations at the Vernon facility, demolish/deconstruct facility structures and equipment, remediate surface and subsurface groundwater contamination and enter agreements with California’s DTSC on closure and post-closure requirements. The agreements made in this contract with the DTSC include the assessment, correction, remediation of both on-site and off-site environmental contamination which includes residential areas (USAO, 2015).

Unfortunately the non-prosecution agreement did not bring Exide to justice, rather, it pardoned Exide for their criminal behavior. In fact, community representatives and organizations who had been fighting for the closure were excluded from involvement in the agreement. The agreement allowed Exide to oversee their own progress including completion of their closure,  and clean-up activities (USAO, 2015). Additional oversight for the cleanup falls under the DTSC, who has a history of environmental injustice related to Exide. The non-prosecution agreement places power with both perpetrators: the company polluting and its regulatory agency. By allowing Exide and the DTSC to oversee the cleanup there is a clear conflict of interest. 

Exide was shut down permanently March 4, 2015 — a victory for the people. However, cleanup will continue to be a fight for environmental justice as communities face patterns of delay, negligence, and other challenges associated with post-closure processes including the cleanup. From the EYCEJ point of view, the DTSC took credit for the Federal Government shutting down Exide and for securing cleanup funds they did not fight for (Negrete, 2019). Community organizers noted that politicians initially discouraged communities from fighting for secured funding that would go towards cleanup. 


From Community-Based Activism to Formal Advisory Status

Over a decade of political activism and advocacy stemming directly from residents

 of the affected communities, collaboration with the DTSC, AQMD, LCDPH became possible. After the closure of the Exide facility, community representatives requested and petitioned for the formation of an advisory group that would include all relevant parties. The request was accepted which initiated the first formal advisory group containing community representatives and elected officials in SELA. The Exide Advisory Group’s purpose is to engage elected officials with the investigation of the contamination, the residential cleanup, lead prevention programs, community concerns, post-closure procedures, and the concerns of residents. The formalized Exide Advisory Group (EAG) is made up of Elected Officials from the California State Senate and Assembly, City Councilmembers, Representatives from Government Agencies including the DTSC, AQMD, LCDPH, and EPA as well as Community Representatives.  There are thirty-eight members in total. Fifteen of the thirty-eight members are Community Representatives who consist of community organizers from local organizations, residents, medical students, and community advocates. In addition, EYCEJ’s mark! Lopez serves as the co-chair of the Exide Advisory Group and as the executive director of EYCEJ, bridging the gap between community organizations and elected officials. Lopez has also been recognized with the Goldman Prize for his work in SELA on the Exide battery case (The Goldman Environmental Prize, 2017). The EAG acts as a bridge between the administrative agencies and personnel and affected communities and residents. The purpose of the Community Representatives is to advise the administrative agency and act as a collective advocacy group throughout the cleanup, remediation, and post-closure procedures. According to one of the community representatives on the EAG, the presence of community representatives is important because 

Without the unique voice of people most affected you won’t get the monetary resources or intellectual capital that you need to ameliorate the problem long term. 

Corporate and Regulatory Agency Responsibility 

In environmental justice movements, community organizers seek to hold corporations and regulatory agencies accountable for their (in)action. Meaning, communities are often burdened with the labor of pressuring agencies to respond. The work of community organizing is at the forefront of the Exide battery case. There would be no “Exide case” without community members putting in the work to push public agencies such as the DTSC, AQMD, CAEPA to shut down Exide, clean up residential areas, and enforce environmental protection legislation. In the documentary Unsettled, many community members mentioned that they did not feel heard or acknowledged by the public agencies and that they believed the agencies purposefully allowed Exide to pollute and pose health risks to surrounding communities (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015). 

The state of California knew for years that Exide was not adhering to environmental regulations, violating hazardous waste laws, and releasing illegal amounts of lead and other toxic air pollutants but failed to put a stop to it (Barboza, 2016). The DTSC and AQMD should have shut down Exide a long time ago. 

The amount of fines that Exide paid does not compare to the profits they earned and the number of violations they committed. How did Exide continue to operate despite evidence that their battery recycling process caused serious health risks? The answer lies in how regulatory agencies have responded to their environmental violations. One of the reasons why communities are seeking environmental justice is because Exide was allowed to operate by the AQMD and DTSC for over twenty years even though the facility violated environmental regulations every year. Even when regulatory agencies pursue violations, the profits from non-adherence override the violation fines. For example, updating pollution control costs more than paying the fines; thus, companies simply pay the fines and do little to improve emissions (Chittick, 2017).

The response of government agencies such as the DTSC, AQMD, and Gov. Officials (e.g. California Governor, State representatives, Congress) to Exide’s continuous environmental violations demonstrated a lack of urgency. The plant was not shut down until a full two years after the AQMD confirmed an increased cancer risk for residents living in the surrounding areas among other health risks. Three years after the Exide plant shut down the DTSC removed contaminated soil from only 270 properties, with a long period of delay which is unfortunate for many residents who still reside in the 25,000  homes that are considered the most contaminated (Barboza, 2018). Additionally, Commerce and Boyle Heights residents have been waiting for cleanup tests for years, with a median wait time of 1.5 years or more (Barboza, 2018). 

Regulatory agencies have admitted and acknowledged their history of negligence including the failure to act when it comes to Exide. For instance, in a public community meeting on April 9, 2015 (after Exide had shut down) the director of the DTSC, Barbara Lee, made the following statement to the community (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015): 

Many of you are very angry and many of you have been harmed in a variety of ways, and I know that you feel that the department failed you. The department needed to act sooner and we didn’t… for too many years we did not listen. 

The DTSC claims that they have mailed notifications of test results to every resident of whose household was tested for soil lead levels (DTSC, 2020). However, a community survey conducted by LADPH reveals that 55% of respondents reported that they have not received their household soil lead level results (LAPH, 2017). Therefore, the lack of transparency between the DTSC and affected communities continues to be a challenge in the residential cleanup process. 

Nearly five years later, the agreement that the DTSC advocated for has failed to bring justice. As of July 2019, the DTSC revealed that Exide Technologies has persistently refused to comply with its legal obligations outlined in the non-prosecution agreement (DTSC, 2019). Exide denied responsibility for the residential contamination in SELA. Persistent refusal to comply with their legal agreements and denial of responsibility has resulted in a violation of their non-prosecution agreement. The DTSC has asked the United States Attorney’s Office to end its Non-Prosecution Agreement with Exide (DTSC, 2019). Because Exide fails to protect public health, safety, and the environment, DTSC will now complete the investigation and clean up on Exide’s behalf. 

Both industrial corporations and regulatory agencies must be held accountable for the ways in which they interact with communities and the environment with transparency and effectiveness. Some challenges with corporate and regulatory agency responsibility are the complexities of local governance over unincorporated areas such as Vernon and East LA, corporate bankruptcy, lengthy lawsuits, delays in communication between all parties involved, and resistance to policy changes. In addition, larger corporations possess large infrastructures of resources and therefore, have more political clout in the face of working-class Latinx migrant communities. However, the communities of SELA have taken it upon themselves to seek environmental justice against all odds. 

An Overview of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is a health condition known to be caused by environmental exposure. The causal relationship for this illness is well documented and is not contested among health researchers and scientists. Lead is a soft metal that melts at low temperatures and is one of the first metals humans processed and used. Consequently, lead exposure in mining, processing and product making became common, thus,  humans have spread lead into the built environment in a variety of ways (Korfmacher, 2019). During the industrial era lead use expanded including the use of lead-based paint in peoples homes, despite health professionals’ concern for the potential health effects (Korfmacher, 2019 p. 72). Lead does not dissipate over time and remains a threat unless it is removed or permanently covered (Korfmacher, 2019 p. 73). 

Lead can cause physiological damage at relatively low exposure, especially in fetuses or young children. Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can reverse lead’s permanent damage to children’s growing brains, bones, and organs; it is a condition that can only be prevented and not cured (Korfmacher, 2019 p. 73). Although lead paint was banned in Europe in the 1920s, lead industries in the United States denied the health effects of lead poisoning. Finally in 1978, the federal government banned lead paint in residential homes (Korfmacher, 2019). 

Because lead is used in so many forms of production, industrial processing is also a point-source for lead pollution/poisoning. Lead poisoning has affected many communities all over the U.S. despite the fact that it can be prevented and plausibly eliminated. Strategies such as community organizing, reframing the issues to reach human rights violations, and collaborating with stakeholders provide possibilities for decreasing lead poisoning of residential communities can all contribute to eliminating lead exposure.

Pollution Impact: Lead Poisoning and Cancer Risk

In SELA, soil tests taken from residential homes around the Exide plant showed levels of lead more than 50 times the minimum level considered to be a hazardous waste (Delgadillo, 2018). This case exemplifies how industrial pollution causes environmental health consequences for residents and community members that live, work, and play in close proximity to industrial zones. The health burden of industrial pollution on the communities in southeast and east Los Angeles has resulted in the lead poisoning of, particularly vulnerable populations. Many of the homes affected were family households including young children, babies, pregnant women, and adolescents. Children under the age of six are at high risk for lead poisoning because they retain two times more lead than adults (Corburn, 2005 p. 153).  Children who have absorbed lead can suffer impaired intellectual development, shortened attention spans, and behavioral disorders, anemia or impaired metabolism (Korfmacher, 2019). In young babies (9-18 months) the risk is even higher, absorbing lead at a rate five to ten times greater than adults (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, 2012). Additionally, because children have smaller bodies higher concentrations of lead can result from a smaller amount of ingested/inhaled lead than in an adult.

 Historically the health burden of lead poisoning has disproportionately affected low-income and racially marginalized populations. According to the CDC, children whose families are low income and who are of minority race and ethnicity, especially non-Hispanic black children, are at most risk (CDC, 2018). The lead poisoning of potentially 100,000 people in SELA demonstrates the reality of the disproportionate health disparities that low-income, working, Latinx families experience (Barboza and Poston, 2017). For victims of lead poisoning the condition is lifelong.

In 2013, a health risk assessment (HRA) of the Exide facility found a high risk of cancer in the surrounding areas of the Exide facility (Environ International Corporation, & Air Quality Management Department, 2013) The report revealed that residents who live closest to the facility within 1.7 miles) have the highest cancer risk. The HRA was a good start but continued research is necessary to understand the extent of the contamination. 

A statement from a key organizer in EYCEJ, Alessandro Negrete (Negrete, 2019), 

“99% of the homes that have been tested within the 1.7-mile radius require cleanup, meaning the edge of the contamination has not been found. These two facts point to the logical conclusion that the state must continue sampling beyond 1.7 miles to adequately profile the contamination. In fact, through our Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative, our members conducted soil sampling at homes beyond the 1.7-mile radius and found elevated levels of lead”

After the HRA, the LA County Department of Public health (LCDPH) began offering free blood lead testing to SELA. Every Tuesday and Thursday at the East LA health center residents are offered free blood lead testing. However, community activists have stated that testing has come too late and that optimal time to have conducted testing would have been in 2008 when lead emissions from the smelter were so high that the AQMD forced it to temporarily cut production (Garrison et al., 2013).

Contamination Assessment 

The facility operating under Exide Technologies, polluted the soil beneath it with high levels of lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals primarily through air emissions. The facility operations also contaminated groundwater, released battery acid onto roads, and contaminated homes and yards in surrounding communities with lead emissions. (California State Assembly, 2020). To assess contamination in the areas surrounding the former Exide facility, the DTSC conducted soil lead level sample testing. Soil lead samples are collected by scooping up the top 1-6 inches of soil from the ground and placing into a jar or tube. Then, the samples are sent to a lab for testing. It took seven months after contamination was first confirmed by the HRA for the state to begin taking soil samples. Almost four years after the HRA report only 216 homes in two neighborhoods had been assessed, none of which extended past a half-mile radius of the facility (Johnston et al., 2019b). 

Initially the state took only one measurement of soil per home and purposely skipped renter-occupied homes despite a large portion of residences being renter-occupied (Johnston et al., 2019b). Many residents are long term-renters so it does not make logical or ethical sense to exclude renters from soil sampling. Homeowners who are renting their properties should also have the right to be assessed for cleanup. Additionally, the state was using federal thresholds of assessing risk rather than more stringent state standards. Due to these circumstances, EYCEJ made the following requests for assessment: (1) the extent of the contamination in residential neighborhoods; (2) the levels of exposure in the population, particularly among children; (3) the impact on the health and well-being of the residents and a health-protective remediation plan (Johnston et al., 2019b p74). Because there was a significant delay from the DTSC, Cal EPA, and Exide in the investigation of the extent of pollution, community organizers pressured the DTSC to increase transparency of completed soil lead testing and residential cleanups. So far the DTSC has sampled 8,555 parcels for lead soil levels (DTSC, 2020). 


Community-Based Approaches and Street Science in SELA

Street Science is based on the findings that local knowledge is a crucial resource for understanding how neighborhoods structure both physical and social exposures, and how local knowledge can assist epidemiologists, health professionals, policymakers and government agencies in structuring effective localized interventions (Corburn, 2005 p. 7). In the face of government inaction, community organizations are using street science in their fight for environmental health justice. For many years regulatory agencies did not acknowledge the environmental health risks associated with toxic or chemical exposure. Community organizers found it necessary to demonstrate people’s exposure to pollutants have adverse health effects. In many environmental health justice cases, the burden of providing scientific proof of environmental harm falls on affected communities, as opposed to polluters. In the Exide case, community organizations pressured regulatory agencies and the LCDPH to support their environmental health justice movement with soil sampling and blood tests. Ultimately the burden of proving environmental harm and health effects fell onto affected communities. In working to reveal that chronic lead exposure indeed occurred, community organizations used community-based approaches. One approach was community-based participatory research (CBPR) which includes community members in a democratic and more central way by prioritizing their own issues and concerns (Corburn, 2005). Community members act as participants in the research rather than being the subject. 

Community-based Research: The Truth Fairy Project 

Residents of the communities near the battery smelter were concerned that measuring current blood lead levels would not reflect historical exposure to lead. Community organizations felt it necessary to assess the extent of lead (and other toxicants) in the residential areas, parks, and schools in the surrounding neighborhoods while connecting to the role that the smelter may have played in past exposures and current health disparities (Johnston et al., 2019b). Blood tests trace lead exposure for up to four months, but these tests are not as reliable for long-term exposure. The DTSC and LCDPH were focused on collecting blood tests and soil samples from residents which cannot reveal long-term or chronic exposure. 

At a community-led meeting in 2014, EYCEJ, Resurrection Church, Comite Pro Uno, and Communities for a Better Environment began collaborating with the Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative and requested the participation of USC’s community engagement program on health and the environment. This collaboration led to a proposition from USC’s Keck School of Medicine to conduct a study on the extent of the lead poisoning near the battery smelter (Johnston et al., 2019b; Negrete, 2019). Dr. Johnston from USC’s Keck School of Medicine proposed a partnership with EYCEJ and other community organizations to examine the mineral rings in children’s teeth which can reveal levels of lead exposure and at what point in life the exposure took place (Negrete, 2019). 

USC’s Keck School of Medicine collaborated with communities in important ways. As an academic institution it is important to build trust and credibility with the surrounding communities especially when conducting research about the communities themselves. Because these communities have faced significant hardship with governmental agencies, it is understandable that residents may feel wary of outside personnel coming into their communities. Community movements and organizations engage with their communities on a regular basis; they have a relationship with surrounding communities built on trust. Thus, the presence of community representatives in research that engages the community directly is crucial. Collaborative research projects have the potential to be mutually beneficial. EYCEJ notes that one of the benefits of this collaboration was access to resources and expertise that would have otherwise been unavailable. In all, the Truth Fairy Project would not have been possible without the involvement of community-based organizations. One of the ways community organizers made this project possible was with the name “Truth Fairy,” it made it easier to ask for their children’s baby teeth. Many people are familiar with the concept of the tooth fairy, thus, community organizers decided to connect the project to the well-known phenomena (Negrete, 2019).

Community-based participatory research has been an effective tool for community organizers in the Exide case and for many different EJ movements historically (Corburn, 2005; Johnston et al., 2019b). Collaborative relationships between health professionals and community organizations promote trustworthy relationships resulting in applied scientific research such as the Truth Fairy Project. Community organizations such as EYCEJ held meetings with community members to inform residents and participants about environmental health, the Truth Fairy Project, as well as academic partners and resources. The collaboration also included a bilingual interactive workshop for parents of children and adolescents about lead poisoning, local lead smelters, and common routes of lead exposure using the results from the Truth Fairy Project. One of the main benefits of the Truth Fairy Project was the relationship between USC and community organizations which produced a conjoined effort to ensure that regulatory agencies and Exide take action to protect public health (Johnston et al. 2019b). 


The aim of this project was to conduct a retrospective assessment of prenatal and early life exposure to toxic metals associated with the smelter (Exide) using a non-invasive biomarker, shed baby teeth (Johnston et al., 2019a). Prenatal and postnatal exposure to toxic metals can be successfully assessed through dental biomarkers found in baby teeth. All shed baby teeth in the study were from children who lived <2 miles from the Vernon smelter in utero and during early childhood. During pregnancy, deciduous teeth begin mineralizing, specifically in the 2nd & 3rd trimesters, and as they grow the teeth incorporate minerals (including toxic metals)(Johnston et al., 2019a). Demographics and other characteristics such as health behaviors, feeding practices, residential history, household occupations, birth information, maternal educational attainment, and housing age were all taken into account. In total, 50 teeth were analyzed from 43 children, all who identified as Latinx/a/o with a median age of 9 years old ranging from 7 to 18 yrs old. Bilingual facilitators of the study were crucial as a majority of the participants were Spanish speaking (Johnston et al., 2019). Also, of the participant mothers forty-four percent of them had not completed high school (Johnston et al., 2019a). Participants were from four affected neighborhoods: Boyle Heights, Commerce, East LA, Maywood/Huntington park. The children of mothers with a high school education had significantly lower teeth lead levels, which indicates that low-educational attainment may be a contributing risk factor in lead exposure. 

Mothers living near the smelter were exposed to lead during pregnancy and/or shortly after giving birth causing lead to cross the placenta into the fetus and/or their babies to be exposed to lead during infancy. Lead exposure during pregnancy has been associated with a wide range of adverse birth effects including low birth weight, stunted childhood growth, and impaired cognitive function (Johnston et al. 2019b). Of the 43 children, 46% had detectable prenatal and Arsenic concentrations in their teeth while 39% had postnatal concentrations (Johnston et al., 2019a). The study revealed that 100% of the teeth sampled had detectable levels of lead. The median soil lead concentration of the participant households was 190 ppm with only 13.7% of samples above 400 ppm (Johnston et al., 2019a). In other words, even low-level exposure had a significant impact on prenatal and postnatal lead accumulation. 

The Truth Fairy study confirms that exposure to lead is associated with higher tooth lead concentrations in this population of low-income Latinx children living near the former lead smelter. The findings of this study confirm that soil contamination in this area of SELA located near a smelter (Exide) is associated with prenatal and early-life lead exposure. Both pre- and postnatal tooth lead levels had a significant association with soil lead levels even as other factors were accounted for including maternal education and lead-based paint (Johnston et al., 2019b).


One of the successful aspects of the Truth Fairy Project is the level of community engagement that residents had with the scientific data and literature through workshops, infographics, and bi-lingual material. To disseminate the scientific data and findings of the Truth Fairy Project, community organizations led environmental health workshops to create environmental health science literacy, community engagement, and collective empowerment. Science literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural issues. The infographics were able to capture and communicate the scientific information of the study, which made the information more accessible and understandable. Environmental health literacy is a great tool for helping communities understand how industrial pollution, chemical pollution, and human health are interconnected. The use of infographics is an example of how community-based collaborations can reach a large audience while effectively centering local concerns and narratives. Community organizations used community-based participatory research and street science to advance for environmental health justice. The main goal in this process was to help their communities understand environmental health risks related to lead so that residents could be empowered to advocate for themselves and act on issues of environmental justice (Johnston et al., 2019b). Science literacy is an important step towards political engagement, social change, and environmental health justice. When communities understand how their quality of life is being impacted by industrial pollution, they can make informed decisions in their personal lives as well as in the political sphere. 

The collaboration between USC CEPHE, EYCEJ, and other community organizations was key in obtaining necessary assessments of chronic and long term lead exposure in the surrounding communities of the battery smelter (ie. Exide). The collaboration bridged personal information to larger systemic issues of environmental racism and health disparities by demonstrating the extent of harm that industrial pollution can have. Systemic racism via uncontrolled lead smelters produces negative health outcomes for the most vulnerable of populations within marginalized communities and in this case, babies and children. The truth fairy project reveals that mothers and their babies were exposed to unhealthy amounts of lead in the womb and in early childhood. Although it is difficult to assert direct causation from Exide, evidence from this study confirms that elevated soil lead levels are definitively associated with prenatal and postnatal lead exposure. Thus, there is a correlation between the lead emissions of Exide and chronic lead exposure in the area.

The Truth Fairy Project communicates the environmental risks of multiple working poor multilingual communities who are now living with long-lasting health conditions (ie. lead poisoning, cancer) due to systemic forms of discrimination. Although the project was successful in extending the radius of assessment from ½ mile to 1.7 miles, more research is needed to assess areas further away from the site. Extending the radius for cleanup assessment is necessary to identify the spatial boundary of residential lead contamination and poisoning in the surrounding areas. According to a community representative on the Exide Advisory Group, community representatives are requesting that assessment for cleanup extends to five miles minimum. 

The communities that have fought for environmental health justice surrounding the Exide case are resilient and possess critical local knowledge and awareness. Successful outcomes include extended investigations to over 10,000 properties, revealed scientific evidence of chronic exposure to lead in SELA, publicly accessible soil contamination data, and improved regulations on air emissions from battery smelters and other lead processing facilities were implemented (Johnston et al., 2019b; DTSC, 2018a).  The main takeaway from the study is that the most vulnerable populations of SELA communities are living with intergenerational health effects. 


Residential Cleanup

The DTSC is now responsible for the completion of the residential cleanup (DTSC, 2019). Trust between the DTSC, residents, and community organizations is very unstable due to the fact that the DTSC  allowed Exide to operate without a proper permit and emit hazardous emissions for over a decade. Due to limited funding the DTSC requires that each property/parcel meet specific requirements in order to qualify for soil removal and cleanup. The parcel must be within a 1.7-mile radius from the former Exide facility. In addition, the following criteria must also be met (DTSC, 2017):

  • residential properties with a representative soil lead concentration (RSLC) of 400 parts per million (ppm) or higher
  • residential properties with a representative soil lead concentration is less than 400ppm but where any soil sample was 1,000 ppm or higher was detected
  • daycare and childcare centers indicating an RSLC of 80ppm or higher that have not yet been cleaned up
  • all parks and schools that still require cleanup 

The DTSC cleanup plan includes removing contaminated soil from properties, replacing it with clean dirt, and then applying a cover of sod, decomposed granite, or mulch. Dust control measures will be used during cleanup activities (DTSC, 2017). According to a community representative in the Exide Advisory Group, there is a considerable amount of concern over the nature of the cleanup plan and residents are worried about re-contamination, lack of lead poisoning prevention, inadequate cleanup methodologies, that their homes won’t be cleaned up due to lack of funding and/or that their homes will never be cleaned up because many homes are not located within the 1.7-mile area. The Exide residential cleanup may take up to 10 years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Due to the size and extent of contamination, this cleanup may be the largest and the most expensive cleanup in California state history, encompassing seven Los Angeles County neighborhoods (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015; Barboza & Poston, 2017). 

Initially the cleanup was to be paid for by Exide. However, the funding from Exide’s initial agreement only covered the costs of soil removal for about 200 homes closest to the facility (Barboza and Poston, 2018). After permanent closure in 2015, state regulators announced that residential yards with lead levels above 80ppm required cleanup, but as testing continued they found that lead levels were above health standards for more than 10,000 homes (Barboza and Poston, 2018). Consequently, officials decided to prioritize and clean up the most-contaminated and high-risk properties. The less-inclusive approach was mostly due to a lack of funding. 

The DTSC announced that cleanup for each residential parcel will cost roughly $40,000 and that the project scope is 5,000 to 10,000 homes (Mollenkof and Bakalar, 2015; DTSC, 2017). The “cleanup” of residences boils down to soil removal in which workers remove contaminated soil for disposal, replace it with clean dirt, then cover it with sod, decomposed granite, or mulch. One of the difficulties is that the  DTSC doesn’t normally implement cleanups; In emergency cases, they oversee, organize, and facilitate cleanups. The DTSC hires contractors to carry out the soil removal and other cleanup processes. As of now the DTSC is solely focused on moving dirt. However, Community Representatives on the Advisory Group is advocating for a more expansive and durable cleanup by the DTSC. According to a community representative on the Exide Advisory Group, one of the main challenges of the EAG are differences in cleanup approaches. Community representatives are requesting a durable cleanup that would include protocols aimed at minimizing re-contamination risks and future lead exposure. Rather than just simply removing dirt parcel by parcel, the durable cleanup would include the weatherization of homes, indoor lead prevention programs for SELA, a childhood lead poisoning program, replacement of lead-based paint, expansion of research and testing for blood lead levels beyond 1.7 miles, and removal of contaminated soil from homes block by block. 

Figure 14. 

Current Residential Cleanup Progress: DTSC Interactive Map 

Note. Outreach zone D includes residences located in Boyle Heights and Unincorporated East Los Angeles. The Exide facility is southwest of zone D within a 1.7 miles radius. The largest central parcel that has been cleaned is Rowan Elementary School. (DTSC, 2018a). 

In the current iteration of the cleanup plan, residential homes are selected for soil removal parcel by parcel. In other words, the current residential soil-removal project creates a checkerboard-like pattern of parcels that contain decontaminated soil and contaminated soil. Homes are in close proximity to each other, thus, the possibility of re-contamination is likely. A block-by-block methodology would decrease the likelihood of recontamination and ensure that soil-removal is completed for all front yards, backyards, sidewalk spaces, and communal spaces. One of the challenges that community representatives are facing in proposing the more durable cleanup is that it would require the continued involvement of elected officials and governmental agencies more than what is required currently. As a whole, the current cleanup of parcel by parcel is a very limited approach, leaving many residents and vulnerable populations beyond the 1.7-mile radius without the possibility of cleanup. 

Because Exide has refused to adhere to their agreement, taxpayers are now bearing the financial brunt. When the Vernon facility closed, the California Legislature and the Governor approved $7 million in emergency funding to test the soil at residential properties, parks, schools, and daycare centers in the surrounding community and clean up the highest priority sites. The emergency funding fell short. Then in April 2016, Governor Brown signed legislation that directed $176.6 million to expedite and expand testing of approximately 10,000 properties and to clean up about 2,500 properties with the highest levels of lead and greatest risk of exposure (DTSC, 2017). These two bills expanded funding to cover the costs of a small portion of testing and cleanup; however, more funding is required for the kind of cleanup required to ensure the health and safety of the entire 10,000 households affected. 

As of February 2020, 1,754 cleanups have been completed out of the conservative estimate of 10,000 homes that may require cleanup (DTSC, 2020). One of the causes of delay in the residential cleanup is the change of contractors mid-cleanup due to multiple contractual amendments (DTSC, 2018b). EYCEJ is concerned that the DTSC will replicate the same behaviors that caused this crisis. In their attempts to hold the DTSC accountable they are initiating their own forms of oversight. 

As contractors move on cleaning up thousands of residential properties, we fear recontamination of properties that have been cleaned up, exposure inside the home during and after cleanup, incomplete cleanup, and any practice that compromises the health of our communities and waterways. We have begun training our members to be Residential Cleanup Observers so we can watch our blocks, document, and hold contractors and the state accountable (Negrete, 2019). 

A safe, durable, complete cleanup is a priority for residents and community organizations. Unfortunately, at the current pace, residents will endure the harmful effects for years to come. Thus, the labor of communities seeking environmental justice in SELA continues. 

Collaboration with the Department of Public Health: Community Survey

The LA County Department of Public Health (LCDPH) is now collaborating with community members and organizations to address the health concerns associated with lead poisoning and cancer risk in the surrounding areas of the former lead smelter.  The county had to intervene because “the state continues to drag its feet,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and other communities near the battery recycling plant (Barboza, 2015b). On June 10, 2017, the Health Agency, in partnership with community groups and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, carried out a large-scale outreach event through the LCDPH  to survey residents who live in the 21,000 households in SELA (LAPH, 2017). While working with community organizations and residents they were able to conduct a resident survey in both English and Spanish; a total of 5,073 surveys were completed. The results of the survey produce important information for assessing different aspects of the Exide case and how residents perceive and have interacted with the situation. This survey utilized community-based participatory research as it included the participants in the research centering on their experiences and perspectives. All responses were voluntary and conducted by both the LACDPH and community organizers.

Of the households who responded to the survey, 67% responded that no one in their home has been tested for lead in their blood, 74% knew about the cleanup activities (24% did not), 50% were not satisfied with the cleanup, 55% responded that they have not received their results from soil testing completed in their yards, and  75% households are concerned about getting cancer and/or lead poisoning.  This survey of over 4,000 households is an excellent example of how door-to-door community engagement can produce insightful statistics that reflect the narratives of the affected-communities.

The Fight Continues

One of the challenges of the Exide battery case was articulating one of the most contested arguments; environmental racism. However, for communities with the lived experience of unequal environmental exposure in SELA, the element of discrimination is clear and a part of its story. Most would agree that Exide’s pollution wouldn’t have happened to the same extent and duration if it had been a predominantly white, rich community. 

Resident activists remained resilient despite multiple forces of opposition. Community activists successfully shut down the lead smelter. Ultimately, the Exide battery case reveals that community activism, advocacy, and organizing is effective. The closure of the Exide facility was merely a first step towards environmental justice, however. Now that the plant is shut down, communities are facing a different challenge—the residential cleanup. Almost five years after the facility shut down, thousands of residents (i.e., pregnant women, babies, and young children) are still being forced to live in contaminated homes without assurance of a proper cleanup. The pressure put on Exide, DTSC, CEPA, as well as the federal and state government by the community organizations significantly contributed to the implementation of the residential cleanup. In all stages, community organizing holds agencies and elected officials accountable to constituents’ needs and demands and ultimately influences policy. 

The environmental health justice movement in SELA confirms that professionals can increase their research accuracy, scope, and relevance by incorporating community-knowledge. To decrease environmental health inequities, address toxic exposure, and improve environmental health for all, policymakers, local governance, and government agencies must acknowledge and integrate the narratives of concerned residents and community activists into applied solutions. 

Although the human costs are impossible to quantify in a situation where some people have permanent damage to their quality of life, the importance of adequate funding for the residential cleanup is essential. Because the residential cleanup is estimated to take over 10 years to complete, continuous accountability and pressure on the DTSC and state of California is required. 

Programs and services that may support SELA communities in addition to the residential cleanup include direct interventions in childhood lead poisoning, a whole task force in asthma mitigation, bilingual community-based health educators, and in-home services for families that are facing environmental health issues. An additional possibility for future investigations is the occupational health of lead smelter workers and in the estimated 15 former lead smelters whose pollution may have also contributed to lead contamination in the area.  

  Community organizing in SELA is an environmental health justice movement that can inspire communities all over the world to engage in community-based science, research, and action that can influence structural change and ultimately, address environmental injustice. As Exide continues to deny its legal and moral obligations and with the residential cleanup underway, for SELA communities ”La Lucha Sigue” which means the fight continues.



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