L.A. protesters dump bags of dirt at federal courthouse to oppose Exide plant abandonment

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Residents of the massive cleanup zone surrounding the shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon marched to downtown Los Angeles on Monday evening to protest a bankruptcy court’s decision to allow the company to abandon the heavily contaminated site.

Some brought plastic bags of dirt from lead-polluted yards, throwing them over a fence onto the steps of the federal courthouse at North Main and West Temple streets.

“These are donations from the Exide-impacted area,” said Mark Lopez, co-director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, which organized the protest.

The demonstration drew about 150 people, many of them from southeast Los Angeles County communities riddled with lead contamination from decades of air pollution from the closed Exide Technologies facility.

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“East L.A. under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back,” the crowd chanted as they marched down 1st Street from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, beating drums and holding signs demanding accountability for the pollution.

The U.S. Department of Justice supported Exide’s bankruptcy plan, approved Friday by a Delaware bankruptcy court, which allows the company to walk away from its half-demolished facility and leave the expensive toxic cleanup to California taxpayers. The judge concluded that the site is not an imminent threat to the public.

The decision infuriated Guadalupe Valdovinos, 35, whose home in East L.A. is sandwiched between two neighboring properties that have not been cleaned. She attended the protest with her 11-year-old daughter and brought a small bag of soil from her neighbor’s yard, where high lead levels were detected.

“Why is it OK for us to live in poison?” Valdovinos said. “To me, that’s an imminent threat. But we just don’t matter. We’re collateral damage.”

Protesters march from Boyle Heights to the Civic Center in Los Angeles, demanding accountability for pollution caused by the Exide battery recycling plant.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Protesters projected a skull-and-crossbones symbol onto the side of the federal court building as they took turns sharing stories about the effects of lead pollution on their health and communities. Others left signs: “Criminalize polluters” and “Dirt bags for dirtbags.”

State and local officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have blasted the bankruptcy court ruling. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control is appealing the decision and has filed a motion for a stay of the ruling.

Protesters also excoriated state regulators who allowed the Vernon plant, which melted down used car batteries, to operate for decades without a full permit, despite repeated violations of air pollution limits and hazardous waste laws. Exide agreed to close the plant permanently in 2015 in a deal with federal prosecutors to avoid criminal prosecution for years of illegal activity.

Since then, residents from half a dozen communities have fought state toxic waste regulators to get their yards cleaned. About 2,000 residential properties have had contaminated soil removed, but thousands more with lead levels above state limits remain uncleaned.

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