The beleaguered operator of a Vernon battery-recycling plant announced the temporary layoffs of nearly all of its employees Monday, weeks after air-quality regulators shut down its operations over air pollution concerns.
Exide Technologies said in a statement that it had issued notices to 104 hourly employees and 20 managers at the facility that they could be laid off within 60 days.
The plant, which has been a source of community outrage since regulators announced last year that its arsenic emissions posed a danger to more than 100,000 people, has been idle since last month. Two weeks ago, the South Coast Air Quality Management District denied the company extra time to comply with new, stricter rules on arsenic emissions.
Exide had asked for permission to continue operating while it installed equipment that air district officials had said was necessary to keep toxic compounds from wafting over neighborhoods.
The air district's hearing board rejected the request, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a similar motion.
"Because our Vernon facility is not currently operating and not able to meet the new operational standard … we had no choice but to make this very difficult decision," Chief Executive Robert M. Caruso said in the statement about the layoffs. The company says it is evaluating its options for the future of the plant.
Msgr. John Moretta, a priest at Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, said he and others are concerned for the employees and the families they support, many of whom live in the community. But, he added, "The simple fact is that 120 workers cannot be balanced with the health of 100,000 people."
Exide officials had said previously that the plant's arsenic emissions have plummeted in recent months and are no longer a danger to residents, but they are committed to meeting the agency's new restrictions.
In addition to arsenic, the plant has also been repeatedly cited for emitting too much lead.
Employees and union leaders called the company's move "disappointing."
Plant mechanic Jerry Carrizal, 54, said he worries about finding work at his age. "What kind of job opportunities are out there … for us, in our 40s and our 50s?" he said.
In an interview with The Times, Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, called the layoff notices a "lose-lose" for workers and local residents, saying he worries the company, currently in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, could walk away from its obligation to clean up the site.
State regulators said California law requires Exide to clean up the site even if it shuts down. The Department of Toxic Substances Control "expects Exide to fulfill its legal obligations," said Sandy Nax, a spokesman for the agency.
The Vernon facility has never received a full permit to operate, as required by federal law, and has been running on a temporary permit for decades.
The state is reviewing Exide's application for a new operating permit.
Also Tuesday, a small group of community leaders from Vernon and surrounding cities gathered in front of the plant to announce the formation of a local environmental advocacy organization to fight industrial pollution.
"These polluters have been allowed to get away with this because they've used the rationale that they're bringing jobs to these poor areas," said Randy Jurado Ertll, founder of California Latino Environmental Advocacy Network.
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