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Southern California environment news and trends

Exide Technologies FAQ: Everything you need to know about recycling lead batteries in LA

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What do battery recyclers like Exide Technologies in Vernon do?

Old lead-acid batteries, like those you see under the hood of your car, are gathered up and shipped to secondary recycling facilities. (Motorcycle batteries and other commercial batteries go to Vernon too.) They’re disassembled or otherwise broken down; first, plastic casings and hardware are pulled off and separated. Then the lead is melted down in furnaces, to separate it  from the acid parts. The lead is smelted into ingots, lead-alloy bars, or blocks as large as a ton, and then re-used in batteries and other similar products.

How many battery recyclers are there in California?

Two. The only two battery recyclers in the U.S. west of the Rockies are Exide Technologies, in Vernon, and Quemetco, in the City of Industry.

Where else does Exide operate?

Exide’s global headquarters are in Milton, Georgia. It manufactures batteries in numerous U.S., Pacific Rim, European and Australian locations. Exide recycles batteries in the U.S. at plants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Canon Hollow, Missouri; Muncie, Indiana; and Reading, Pennsylvania.

At present, Exide’s Frisco, Texas and Vernon, California plants are closed. Exide shut down its Frisco plant last year. Cleanup work at that plant has been stalled since March 2013, when environmental quality regulators found higher-than-expected amounts of lead and cadmium onsite. Exide has said that it remains on schedule to finish cleaning the property by May 2014, and it’s just waiting for the go-ahead from environmental regulators.

What are the potential environmental hazards in battery recycling?

Lead is a toxic metal. According to CalRecycle, "Symptoms of low-level lead exposure include fatigue, impaired central nervous system functions, and impaired learning.  Severe lead poisoning can result in coma, convulsions, irreversible mental retardation, seizures, and even death."

The concerns about recycling lead stem from potential failures to control air emissions or hazardous waste during the recycling process. Emissions can transport particulate matter, including lead and arsenic. Poorly contained lead waste, including waste water, can leach toxic materials into soil and groundwater surrounding a recycling facility.

Exposure to lead in all three media - air, soil, and water - can harm humans and wildlife.

RELATEDTimeline | Exide's shutdown in Vernon

What have environmental tests shown so far?

An initial round of soil tests conducted by the Department of Toxic Substances Control sampled for 24 chemicals, including lead and arsenic. Lead was found above what toxic regulators call “screening levels,” triggering the need for additional tests.

At homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood, the soil of every home tested had lead in excess of 80 parts per million, with one property above 580 parts per million. The initial tests sampled soil up to six inches deep.

The Salazar Park Head Start preschool on the north side of Exide showed lead levels of 95 parts per million.

A second round of soil tests is planned, but protocols for those tests have not been established.

Will there be testing for lead in people? What will those results mean?

According to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, testing for lead in people will begin April 7 and continue as long as there is local demand. That’s as a result of Exide’s agreement last fall to pay for tests that would be administered through the department.

If a test detects an elevated level of lead in the blood, toxic epidemiology expert Dr. Cyrus Rangan says the county will send inspectors and nurses to the person's home and arrange for medical treatment if necessary.

UCLA toxicologist John Froines has described some of the limitations of the proposed methods of lead testing in blood. For example, the testing is not meant to rigorously search for the sources of lead. In the absence of high levels of lead in blood, establishing a “point source” for the lead – where the lead came from – is complicated and time consuming, and involves, at a minimum, a detailed environmental history for the exposed person.

Is there concrete evidence that Exide’s operation has caused health problems in the surrounding communities?

No. In heavily industrial urban areas, it is exceedingly difficult to determine a direct link between a specific facility and an individual’s health condition. 

DTSC has not said whether it will seek this information. Descriptions of a second round of tests, proposed most recently by Exide, do not include this sort of work.

Neither blood tests nor home inspections conducted as described by county health inspectors or toxic regulators can specifiy whether Exide is depositing the lead in homes and soil.

How could Exide operate with just a temporary permit since 1981?

The Vernon plant was owned by a company called Gould when it first applied for a permit in the 1980s. Exide took it over in 2000. Exide most recently filed a complete permit application in 2006. That permit application remains open with the DTSC.

State toxics regulators insist that they are closely monitoring Exide even without a permit. They struck a deal with the company last fall, under which Exide would spend $7.7 million on upgrades to the facility. As part of the agreement, DTSC is no longer pursuing plans to temporarily close the facility.

Exide also has agreed to set aside $10.9 million for closure costs – that’s a pile of money that would be saved solely to remediate Exide’ abandoned the property. Critics have questioned whether that amount of money could accomplish remediation at that site.

A bill authored by State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) that concerns Exide’s permit is moving through the legislature in Sacramento. It would require Exide to complete the permit process by 2015, or lose its interim permit. 

Who regulates Exide in California?

The Department of Toxic Substances Control regulates companies that handle hazardous waste under authority of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Under federal law, regulators permit companies like Exide to handle hazardous materials like lead as long as they do so safely. DTSC writes permits, inspects facilities, issues violations of hazardous waste rules, and monitors corrective action at sites.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District regulates Exide’s air emissions, in part with what’s called a Title V permit, which allows the company to release pollutants into the air up to certain levels.

The L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board is responsible for protecting water quality around Exide (as well as around the Los Angeles River and along the coast). Exide has wastewater treatment systems, and a stormwater system that includes a retention basin. Water regulators set standards for water that flows away from Exide’s property into the sewer.

The City of Vernon issues health and other permits to Exide.  

How could Exide operate with just a temporary permit since 1981?

The Vernon plant was owned by a company called Gould when it first applied for a permit in the 1980s. Exide took it over in 2000.

The most recent time Exide filed a complete permit application was 2006.

Is there concrete evidence that Exide’s operation has caused health problems in the surrounding communities?

No. In heavily industrial urban areas, it is exceedingly difficult to determine a direct link between a specific facility and an individual’s health condition. 

Are there alternatives to recycling lead batteries at plants like Exide’s?  

Not really. In principle, lead recycling is considered a successful way to reuse materials. Ninety seven percent of battery lead gets recycled. 

 

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