Battery Recycler Fights Emergency Clean-Up Order

Thursday, December 26, 2013
Exide President and CEO Robert Caruso

There are only two battery recyclers left west of the Rockies and both of them sit in Los Angeles County neighborhoods surrounded by angry residents demanding they close.


The more visible of the two, Exide Technologies in Vernon, has been accused of presenting a health hazard to more than 100,000 people while melting down up to 40,000 batteries a day. It has been smacked around this year by the South Coast Air Quality District (AQMD) and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which almost managed to close it, at least temporarily.


On Wednesday, The Los Angeles Times reported that DTSC had issued an emergency cleanup order after finding dangerously heavy concentrations of metals in dust and soil samples near the facility. The agency said it was urgent that the materials be cleaned up by January 31 to avoid winter rains washing it into the Los Angeles River.


It rained all day the next day.


The Times also reported that the other plant, City of Industry-based Quemetco, has been ordered to conduct a health risk study after testing showed high amounts of arsenic at its plant. Quemetco has about five months to do the study and the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) will study the results for several months afterward.


David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that Quemetco has always been considered the better actor of the two companies by the state. But that is a pretty low bar to reach. Exide has been on the state’s radar since 1999 when DTSC found lead at levels of 40% in the sediment of a storm water retention pond. Exide was required to clean it up.


Exposure to lead causes permanent brain damage and about half a million American children have too much of it in their system. Lead lowers IQs, causes learning disabilities and has been linked to criminal behavior. It has also been linked to stunted growth, seizures and a range of maladies. Needless to say, arsenic isn’t any better. It is notoriously poisonous and has been linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases and diabetes.   


Exide was fined $40,000 by DTSC in 2003 for improper storage of used lead-acid batteries, but payment was delayed when its international parent company declared bankruptcy. Exide paid $3,000 in 2004 to settle two air-quality violations and was forced to do an emergency cleanup of a lead-contaminated drainage channel, sidewalks, streets and neighboring roofs.


DTSC fined Exide in 2006 for failing to minimize hazardous releases and the next year a report was released that said the company had dumped 1,500 pounds of lead into the L.A. River watershed over the three previous years. Air regulators fined Exide $5,000 in 2008, and the next year Exide paid $150,000 to settle 14 air quality violations. Exide also ponied up $250,000 for regulatory costs.


There was another $100,000 DTSC fine in 2010, the same year that the AQMD imposed new, stricter rules for monitoring and lowering lead emissions. Exide said it failed to meet those standards in 2011, but complied by 2012, the same year the company paid $119,000 to settle seven air quality violations.


A timeline prepared by KPCC, from which the preceding material was drawn, breaks down the final year into a nearly month-by-month tick-tock of accusations, confrontations and court orders. 


On December 16, the AQMD held a community hearing on an abatement order to shut the Vernon plant until Exide upgrades its systems to reduce arsenic pollution. Exide is being asked to retool its two furnaces to contain “fugitive emissions,” a requirement also being pressed on Quemetco. Exide says the upgrade is unnecessary and not required by rules and regulations already in place.


In an email to AllGov, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board stated that “The CSB carefully analyzed and discussed the arguments about ‘self regulation’” and “reached the conclusion that the safety case would protect communities better than the current regulatory system.”


Another hearing is scheduled for January 14.

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Arsenic Levels at Second Battery Recycler Draw Concerns (by Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times)

Exide Technologies FAQ: Everything You Need to Know about Recycling Lead Batteries in LA (by Molly Peterson, KPCC)

Regulatory Report: Chevron Richmond Refinery Pipe Rupture and Fire (U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board) (pdf)

Exide Ordered to Clean up Toxic Substances near Vernon Plant (by Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times)

Exide Technologies Hearings Begin in Los Angeles (by David Pettit, Natural Resources Defense Council blog)

Is the Price of Exide's Vernon Battery Plant Pollution Just $7.7 Million? (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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