Regional air regulators are tightening rules for arsenic and other toxic emissions at battery recycling plants in Southern California.
The new regulations affect the only two large-scale lead battery recycling facilities west of the Mississippi: Exide Technologies in Vernon, and Quemetco in the City of Industry.
Last year air officials found that Exide’s arsenic emissions raised the cancer risk for more than 100,000 households between Boyle Heights and Huntington Park. Since then, it has fought efforts by two different regulatory agencies and grassroots activists to shut it down, and declared bankruptcy.
RELATED: A timeline of the Exide story
Friday’s unanimous vote by the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District lowers the allowable limits for arsenic emissions and two types of organic emissions, benzene and 1,3-butadiene. The battery recyclers will have 60 days to lower arsenic emissions to an interim level; they have a year to reach the final lower levels called for in the rule.
"These measures will further strengthen the toughest air pollution rule in the nation for lead-acid battery plants," said William A. Burke, the governing board's chair.
The hearing drew hundreds of witnesses, largely divided into two camps. Neighbors of the plant wearing white shirts and hats with the slogan "EXIDE KILLS" came from Cudahy, Maywood, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, and other parts of south Los Angeles to support the rule's adoption. Many testified in Spanish with the help of a translator. Exide employees insisted the plant is safe, describing improvements to the recycling facility made in the last year.
An AQMD analysis found that Exide will likely have to install new equipment to comply with the new rule, at an estimated annual cost of nearly $2 million, while Quemetco is likely to be able to meet the standards without installing new equipment.
Exide’s Vernon plant manager, John Hogarth, suggested that it would be difficult for his firm to fully comply with the new rule without exacerbating other pollution problems. Still, Hogarth said that he does not expect Exide to appeal the rule, or try to block its enforcement.
Earlier this week, Exide released a statement touting the Vernon plant's reduction of arsenic emissions by 95 percent since last April. Then on Wednesday, the company notified the AQMD that it had exceeded local lead emissions standards for the third time in the last year. Exide is now operating at a reduced capacity as it addresses the problem.
A separate hearing board convened through the AQMD will decide later this month whether to temporarily shutter the plant, after more public testimony.
Exide has settled some claims with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, requiring the company to purchase a new stormwater runoff system and make other improvements. But a study released last month found arsenic and lead in soil and dust near homes in the area, and toxic regulators have given Exide until the end of the month to clean up the contamination.