Quemetco Inc. in L.A. County’s City of Industry became the largest battery recycler on the West Coast when the Exide Technologies plant in nearby Vernon was forced to close over long-festering lead and arsenic pollution problems that came to a head when angry neighbors finally got their water and soil tested.
Now, 50-year-old Quemetco would like the state’s permission to ramp up its business 25% to take advantage of Exide’s poor fortune, but is running into a few snags. The Exide cleanup could run into hundreds of millions of dollars, which Exide skirted in bankruptcy, and Quemetco has only recently been ordered to start testing the neighborhoods around it.
Quemetco wants to renew (pdf) a 10-year permit from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to store, treat and dispose of hazardous waste. The plant, located on the edge of a city that is virtually an industrial park, receives thousand of batteries a day just blocks from residential neighborhoods.
The acid and leaded materials in the batteries are split from the metal casings and processed. The lead is smelted onsite for reuse and wastewater flows to a treatment plant.
DTSC announced in August that testing around Exide found that 10,000 homes, up to a mile away, may have lead contamination. KPCC said early estimates are that it could cost $10 million to clean up the first 200 properties.
So it was thought prudent that similar testing be conducted around Quemetco. The company is supposed to submit a schedule for testing by the end of the month. Quemetco is also asking the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) for the green light to process 25% more batteries.
Humans have been poisoning themselves with lead for thousands of years. Although it has been known for years to be a health and environmental hazard, it was only in the latter part of the 20th Century that it became accepted that exposure to minute amounts could be devastating.
Lead causes permanent brain damage and about half a million American children have too much of it in their system. It lowers IQs, causes learning disabilities and has been linked to criminal behavior. The metal has also been linked to stunted growth, seizures and a range of maladies.
Exide has always been considered a more troublesome neighbor than Quemetco, with disciplinary actions, mostly for water and air, stretching back to at least 1999. In 2008, after years of complaints from neighbors, the AQMD ordered Exide to dial back its lead emissions. In 2010, arsenic contamination also became a concern and the AQMD said 100,000 nearby residents were at an elevated risk of getting cancer from it.
Exide agreed in March to shut down.
The presence of a wet electrostatic precipitator emissions control device, which can cut emissions 95%, is a big part of why Quemetco has been considered cleaner than Exide. But Truthout, in a story about a trifecta of lead-polluting companies in Southern California, said Quemetco has an equally inglorious record, and its electrostatic precipitator had five “unplanned shutdowns” in the past three months.
Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate with the public interest group Consumer Watchdog, told Truthout, “Quemetco is the next Exide.”