In the latest multi-million fallout from the now-shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, a trucking company must pay $3 million for using leaky trailers to illegally transport over 64 tons of lead-contaminated battery parts across Los Angeles County to a company in Bakersfield, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Wiley Sanders Truck Lines, based in Alabama, was also placed on three years of probation by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who described the company’s conduct as “an environmental disaster for Vernon and the surrounding area” at Monday’s sentencing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.
The $3 million the firm was ordered to pay includes a $1.5 million fine — the maximum penalty allowed under the law — and another $1.5 million that will go toward the Exide Residential Assistance Fund administered by Los Angeles County public health officials.
Before closing in March 2015 as part of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations, the Exide plant recycled 11 million auto batteries each year and released about 3,500 tons of lead into the air in the process.
The batteries were crushed and broken apart into lead, acid and plastic chips — the latter of which Wiley Sanders transported. The chips were washed with water in an attempt to remove lead and other contaminants, but the trucking company hauled them while still wet, prosecutors said.
The trucks usually carried 40,000 pounds at a time, and the company admitted it knew its trailers didn’t have lining to prevent leaking through cracks and other openings.
That resulted in lead-contaminated residue seeping onto the public roads Wiley Sanders’ truck drivers sometimes used to make the route from Vernon to Bakersfield, according to court documents.
Lead is a neurotoxin, and there is no level that is considered safe in human blood.
Even before the plant closed, a state inspector called the leaking trailers an “on-going problem” that “needs to be addressed immediately,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
The plastic chips were delivered to a facility in Bakersfield, which repurposed them into parts that could be used to make new batteries.
All told, Wiley Sanders admitted to willfully and recklessly transporting 128,840 pounds — or 64.42 tons — of the hazardous waste on three occasions between November 2013 and March 2014.
The company pleaded guilty to three felony counts of illegal transportation of hazardous materials in an agreement negotiated with prosecutors, officials said.
As part of the settlement that forced its closure, Exide agreed to pay an estimated $50 million for cleanup of the plant site and surrounding neighborhoods that were contaminated by its activities.
A USC study released last month found found lead contamination in children growing up within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, beginning when fetuses were still developing inside their mother’s womb.