Battery Maker Exide Declares Bankruptcy as Frisco Attempts to Clean Its Toxic Legacy [Updated]

Pollution woes and lagging sales have driven battery maker Exide into bankruptcy for the second time in a decade. For the city of Frisco, the timing couldn't be more inopportune.

In exchange for shutting down an Exide smelter that had been pumping lead and arsenic into the air and nearby Stewart Creek for decades, the city purchased a buffer zone from the company around the site's polluted epicenter. Frisco and Exide have submitted plans with the state environmental regulator to clean up what's known as the "J-Parcel." Exide, meanwhile, would maintain possession of the actual smelter site.

With the battery maker struggling financially, seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections -- and, potentially, relief from environmental liabilities -- Monday's news creates uncertainty surrounding the future of the toxic site.

On Downwinders At Risk last week, Jim Schermbeck pondered a possible silver lining in an Exide insolvency. "The upside of an Exide bankruptcy is that now the company won't be able to hold the rest of the city hostage by keeping the site a toxic dump forever," he writes. "Because it won't own it anymore. Going belly up means there are other options besides the ones Exide was dictating because of its ownership."

Frisco could, he speculated Monday, purchase the site, taking up the hard work of decontaminating the land -- work Exide may never have begun.

On the other hand, he notes somewhat less optimistically, it could become a federal Superfund site, with taxpayers assuming responsibility for its rehabilitation.

Loss of ownership by Exide could prove fortunate, considering Frisco's plans to construct a "Grand Park." The 275-acre, $23 million centerpiece of the city will be built around a number of water features -- each fed, as we noted last week, by the very same Stewart Creek that Exide once treated like an open sewer.

There's no way to know how this bankruptcy and ownership of the smelter site will shake out. But with its filing Monday morning, city officials must be wondering what will become of the toxic-waste dump just upstream from its biggest public project.

Updated at 3:06 p.m.: Frisco Mayor Maher Maso says he believes the remediation of the land Frisco purchased in exchange for the smelter's shutdown will continue apace, along with Exide's plan to dismantle the smelter facility. "We did speak with Exide this morning," Maso said. "The company assured us they have every intention of living up to terms of the agreement."

A potential purchase of the smelter site by the city, a city spokesperson says, was not discussed.

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Brantley Hargrove