International battery recycler and serial polluter Exide Technologies was sued for $40 million in Los Angeles County Superior Court by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) Thursday, capping the latest round of accusations over the troubled company’s Vernon plant.
Exide, which sought Chapter 11 protection from creditors last June, has been accused of presenting a health hazard to more than 100,000 people living near the plant, which melts down up to 40,000 batteries a day. The AQMD civil suit alleges air quality violations, mostly involving illegal lead and arsenic emissions.
Last week, AQMD’s governing board adopted what it characterized as the nation’s toughest regulation limiting arsenic emissions from lead-acid battery plants. The district is also asking its independent hearing board to shut down Exide’s smelting operations until the company improves its air pollution control systems. Exide is one of only two lead-acid battery recycling plants west of the Rockies.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) issued an emergency cleanup order to Exide last month 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 DTSC and AQMD actions were preceded by a decade of health and safety violations that resulted in a string of fines and orders to shape up, according to a timeline compiled by KPCC. One year after Exide filed an earlier bankruptcy request in 2002, the company was fined $40,000 by DTSC for improper storage of used lead-acid batteries. Exide paid $3,000 in 2004 to settle two air-quality violations, the same year it emerged from bankruptcy.
DTSC fined the company $39,000 in 2006 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.
Lead was the focus of complaints about the company until last spring when a trail of arsenic contamination, first detected in 2010, led back to the Exide plant two years later.
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, 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.
The Exide plant, like many polluting facilities in the state, can’t have its permit to operate revoked because it doesn’t have one. The plant has operated under “interim status” for decades under a permitting system that the DTSC admits (pdf) is regarded with “significant dissatisfaction.”