With Exide plant's closure official, lawmakers target state regulators

Lawmakers: state toxic substance regulating agency needs reform after years of lackluster oversight

California lawmakers harshly criticized the state agency responsible for overseeing toxic waste on Thursday following news that the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon would be permanently closed after longstanding complaints about its hazardous emissions.

Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) said the Department of Toxic Substances Control needs "long overdue reform" to become "a very strong, fair regulatory agency."

Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) said "repeated failures by DTSC has shown that our system for handling hazardous waste is broken."

Federal officials announced that Exide would permanently close the battery recycling plant under an agreement that allows the company to avoid criminal prosecution despite admitting that it illegally stored and transported hazardous waste. Under the agreement, the company will pay to clean up the site and nearby homes that have been polluted.

The state's lackluster oversight of the 15-acre battery recycling plant five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles illustrates the department's problems, he said, and "those who let this happen must be held accountable."

Barbara Lee, who took over as DTSC director last year, said she would continue working to improve the agency.

"The department certainly has a very poor reputation right now," she said. "But I'm very optimistic."

Lee said the department has struggled with an increasing workload and declining resources. She showed lawmakers a thick binder filled with what she described as a fraction of the battery recycling plant's permit application.

The plant, run by Georgia-based Exide Technologies, shut down temporarily last year after a new round of testing found increased levels of lead in nearby soil.

Lee said she informed the company on Feb. 26 that the plant would not be allowed to reopen, which led to negotiations over clean-up costs. The plant had been allowed to operate for decades with only a temporary permit, and complaints about pollution and health hazards had mounted for years. Last year, legislators passed a law requiring the agency to either issue a permit for the plant or force its closure by the end of 2015.

Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

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