This community activist in LA helped end decades of environmental abuses by the Exide company

Living on Earth

The Goldman Environmental Prize, given out annually, honors an activist from each of the six inhabited continents. The North American Goldman Prize this year has been awarded to 32-year-old mark! Lopez, who helped end decades of environmental abuses by Exide, a company that operated a lead-acid battery smelter in East Los Angeles.

Lopez says he was reminded about the environmental problems Exide had inflicted upon his community after he graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and went to visit his grandmother.

"She actually handed me a public notice about Exide, and was like, 'Hey, you know Exide is still there, right?'" Lopez says. "She was asking if I knew it was still there because she and my mother actually toured the Exide site in the '90s — and, of course, Exide was telling them all there was nothing to worry about."

“My grandma said, ‘If there's nothing to worry about, then why did the California EPA staff put on all this protective gear and why did they make me put on this protective gear,’” Lopez continues. “‘And, more importantly, why aren't any of the workers putting on protective gear?’”

Lopez said this signaled to his grandmother that, if Exide was willing to put their own workers at risk, they wouldn't worry about compromising the health of the surrounding communities. “So, when I came back from Santa Cruz, she handed me that notice and said, ‘Get on it,’” Lopez says.

Exide was finally shut down in 2015, after admitting to a number of felonies. But before that, Exide had spewed about 7 million pounds of lead into the air, Lopez says, which affected over 100,000 people in southeast LA.

“There's absolutely no level of lead that is safe in our bodies, especially in children,” Lopez explains. “It affects brain development, which impacts educational attainment, which, of course, impacts the future of our communities. It also affects impulse control, and exposure to lead in communities has been correlated with [higher] rates of violence and crime. These are things our communities have been plagued with. So we have to ask, ‘What role has Exide played in this?’”

Lopez says that dealing with the state of California was one of the hardest parts of the effort to end Exide's pollution.

“The state allowed Exide to operate without a permit for years, so they’re a responsible party in this disaster,” he says. “Every step of the way, they've stalled. They've told us that things couldn't happen or what we wanted was not possible. They told us that the problem was not that big: ‘It’s just these two homes we need to clean.’ We had to push them to 40 homes, then 80 homes and 209 homes. Now we're over 10,000 homes that the state is acknowledging are impacted by Exide.”

And that's not even the half of it, he adds. The state looked only at homes within a 1.7-mile radius of the Exide site. California Department of Health data shows that, within a 4.5-mile radius of the site, lead levels in children’s blood exceed the rest of Los Angeles County.

“I think it’s important to note that I'm the third generation in my family fighting against Exide,” Lopez says. “All of the work that our community has put in has made it so that my babies aren't the fourth generation having to fight against Exide, and that's really significant.”

"The reality is, environmental racism exists in East LA; it exists in all parts of LA,” he concludes. “It exists in San Diego and Coachella Valley; it exists on the central coast and in the Central Valley in the Bay Area. Environmental racism exists.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.