Boyle Heights’ Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure



A Vernon, California, lead-battery acid recycling plant, which opened in 1922, contributed to air pollution in Boyle Heights, a nearby Los Angeles neighborhood, for more than 90 years. The plant logged at least 88 violations of emissions standards between 1996 and 2015. Exide Technologies, which purchased the facility in 2000, ran it seven days a week and processed 25,000 batteries a day. It emitted lead, arsenic and other pollutants into the air.

Ensuring Clean Air and Clean Soil

In 2013, after the South Coast Air Quality Management District found the plant “posed a higher cancer risk to more people than any of 450 operations the agency has regulated in the last 25 years,” state regulators temporarily shut it down. Unfortunately, Exide was able to get the closure overturned, forcing advocates to take further action.

In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Exide violated new Clean Air Act emissions standards more than 30 times. These were the same violations found by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. But, because of the new Clean Air Act rules, EPA was able to step in and use those violations to fine Exide up to $37,500 per day for each violation.

These regulations forced the plant to close, yet the state continued to find that it emitted lead into the environment. And, in 2015, inspectors found additional issues, namely improperly labelled containers of hazardous materials and holes in the walls and roof of the facility.

At the same time, the company was also under criminal investigation for pollution related matters. To resolve that situation, the company entered into an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office to, among other things, permanently close the plant.

Under the deal, Exide and its employees would avoid prosecution if they paid $50 million to tear down and clean the plant, with $9 million set aside specifically for removing lead-contaminated soil from homes.

In April 2016, California appropriated an additional $177 million to cleanup about a 2 mile radius surrounding the Exide plant. The state will be looking to Exide to pay this money back.


In August, 2017, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Pew Charitable Trusts released: Ten Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure. The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), Urban Institute, Altarum Institute, Child Trends and many researchers and partners contributed to the report. TFAH and NCHH worked with Pew, RWJF and local advocates and officials to put together the above case study about lead poisoning and prevention initiatives.

The case study does not attempt to capture everything a location is doing on lead, but aims to highlight some of the important work.