Capitalists Poison Tens of Thousands in Latino Neighborhood for Decades—System Gives Them “Get Out of Jail Free” Card

June 13, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


For over 15 years the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant, just five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in the industrial town of Vernon, knowingly released highly toxic lead, arsenic, and other poisonous chemicals into the soil, the water, and atmosphere.

Protesters call Exide Technologies serial polluters, June 1
Protesters call Exide Technologies serial polluters, June 1. Photo: Larry Buhl

Toxic waste at ExideToxic waste at Exide
Left: Abandoned supersacks in storage area at Exide. Right: A battery inside a piece of abandoned equipment. Photos: EPA

This endangered tens of thousands of people in the surrounding Latino communities and made many people seriously ill. A 25-year-old man who addressed a meeting with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control looked fragile, with a curved spine, hunched shoulders, and gangly arms. He was suffering from cancer, rotting teeth, and lead-related health problems—and was considered so ill that the Make-a-Wish Foundation (a charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses) had sent him on a trip to Hawai’i. Another example was a 42-year-old mother with her 10-year-old son, 25-year-old daughter, and her brother—suffering from asthma, skin cancer, and learning disabilities.

And it’s not just a few cases. In 2012, blood tests from nearly 12,000 children under the age of six showed those within a mile of the plant were 50 percent more likely to have elevated lead levels than those farther away. And all but three of the 100 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood that have been tested for lead have levels above allowable limits.

One angry resident called it a “toxic holocaust.”

To make it worse, during the entire period, these crimes were known not only by Exide but by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) the agency supposedly responsible for preventing just such crimes!

And finally, on top of all that, once this came to light, the government agreed NOT TO PUNISH Exide in return for them admitting their crimes!

In the Eyes of This System, No Crime Was Committed

Yes, that’s right. No punishment! In a settlement signed with the U.S. Department of Justice, Exide Technologies admitted publicly in March 2015 that it knowingly committed this toxic contamination over and over, for years. At the same time, the permanent closure of the plant was announced. In return, no criminal charges were brought against them!

Think about that. What has Exide admitted to? The illegal storage of hazardous waste; the illegal disposal of hazardous waste; the illegal shipment of hazardous waste in leaking trailers; and the illegal transportation of hazardous waste to an unpermitted facility. Exide admits that it committed each of these crimes “a significant number of times over the past two decades, in violation of federal law. Each incident could be charged as a felony violation.” A rough estimate is that their crimes are the equivalent of committing four major felonies a day for most of two decades! (Department of Justice press release, March 12, 2015)

Just to cite a few of the crimes committed: lead and acid leaks; an overflowing pond containing toxic sludge; lead dust that had rained down onto nearby soil, streets, and businesses; leaking trailers storing lead-acid battery waste; hazardous levels of lead on a street outside the plant and in the parking lot; and and doors on trailers containing hazardous-waste plastic chips were open, with puddles of water underneath.

Try to imagine what would happen if someone whose child needed medicine for lead poisoning were to commit armed robbery against Exide just once. Do you think they would walk free for just admitting their crime? No! They would be lucky to ever see daylight again, if they weren’t murdered by some pig in the first place. And yet their crime would surely be more “defensible” then the horrors knowingly and callously perpetrated by Exide.

What Causes Such a Horrendous Crime?

What Is Capitalism?

by Bob Avakian

3-part excerpt from Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About.
More about Bob Avakian here

Let’s step back here. Exide Technologies is one of the world’s largest producers of car and truck batteries, with close to $2 billion in assets. At the same time, it operates in a highly competitive industry, and faces stiff competition from their primary rival, Johnson Controls. And they do this in a system where the capitalist who does not fight to crush his rivals will almost certainly one day be crushed by them.

At their website, the company brags that “Exide’s recycling efforts support our commitment to environmental sustainability around the world.” In fact, Exide recycles to maximize their profits in rivalry with other capitalists doing the same thing.

Lead is the main raw material in batteries, and Exide recycles to recover the lead from their customers’ spent batteries to use again. Before the Exide's Vernon plant was shut down, they recycled 20,000 to 40,000 batteries every day. In the dog-eat-dog, expand-or-die universe of capitalism, this enables them to lower the costs of production and thereby lower the price of each battery they put on the market.

The dynamics created by the uncontrolled, anarchistic competition between capitalists determines the way this system operates. The demands of that competition set the framework for the “rules” that capitalist enterprises have to adhere to and operate within. Within this capitalist system, where did—and where could—these human and environmental “costs” fit in to the way Exide was running its Vernon plant? Nowhere. Such costs are treated by competing capitalist enterprises as “externalities”—collateral damage—somebody else’s problem.

You would think that it would be rational to NOT recycle in a way that destroyed the health of whole communities. But then you would not be thinking like a capitalist, and you would be driven under by the rules of the system.

Why Exide Walked

This gets to why the owners of Exide were allowed to walk free after committing such crimes. The underlying dynamics of the economic system ultimately sets the terms and limits of the rulers who oversee it. The capitalist state first and foremost operates, and can only operate, within and in the service of the capitalist-imperialist system.

In this case the oversight agency, DTSC, year after year allowed Exide to operate with a temporary permit while the crimes being committed at the Vernon plant mounted up. When they assessed fines or required repairs to be made, they made sure not to fundamentally threaten Exide’s competitiveness. When the extent of the crimes being committed came to light, it forced a federal investigation and the shutting down of the plant, lest the masses become too aroused and the legitimacy of the system too exposed. But the settlement itself made it clear that in the eyes of the system, while Exide would finally have to shut down the plant, those who owned it and controlled it had committed no crime—at least not a crime that would be punished.

* * *

This problem has a global dimension as well, and “getting tough” on polluters within the U.S. won’t do shit to solve it. In fact, although beyond the scope of this article, it should come as no surprise that there is an international dimension to these extremely toxic operations. As political pressure within the U.S. has led the government to put stricter standards on lead pollution, there has been a rise in the transport of batteries for recycling to Mexico and other countries where standards are low, conditions of work far more dangerous, and enforcement even more lax. The New York Times reported that since 2007, the percentage of used batteries sent to Mexico from the U.S. has increased from six percent to 20 percent. In turn, the transport of lead from Mexico to China tripled in the three years up to 2011.

This is a system in which the demands of capital trump—and must trump—the health of the masses and the health of the environment itself. And here’s the bitter “punch line” to it all: even if these criminals had been found guilty, the system itself would have bred more crime like this and more criminals to do it. To get rid of the crime—to enable a world where production is carried out to meet people’s needs and the environment is cared for, here and around the world—revolution, and nothing short of revolution, is needed.



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