A battery recycling plant shut down in April by state regulators wants to reopen. Exide Technologies in Vernon suspended operations by order of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The agency was concerned about arsenic and lead leaking into the air, water and soil around Exide's plant. At a hearing that begins Monday, Exide will make its case as to why it thinks the department's decision was wrong.
State regulators suspended work at Exide in part because a newly-released study found that the plant’s arsenic emissions pose a severe cancer risk. In the immediate area around the facility, a study done by air officials estimates an elevated cancer risk of 156 cases per million people. A little farther away, in residential neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Huntington Park, the risk is 22 cases per million people. State law requires notifying the public when cancer risk from a facility reaches 10 cases per million people.
The other reason DTSC shuttered Exide is faulty stormwater pipes. The company's own inspection video revealed some of the problems.
“We found out there’s sludge buildup in those pipes,” said Rizgar Ghazi, head of the permit division for the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “The pipes were cracked, there’s leakage from above, there’s leakage from below. So we know these pipes are not operating as they should be and they had uncontrolled releases to the environment.”
Ghazi said the study and the pipes were evidence of immediate and substantial danger to public health. “That’s why we used it as the basis for our order,” he said.
Exide’s not just in trouble with the DTSC. Back in March, the South Coast Air Quality Management District ordered the company to reduce arsenic emissions immediately and to hold public meetings to talk to the public about the risk. The AQMD has inspected Exide 277 times in the past four years. Since 2000, air officials have fined the company for $539,500 over more than 2 dozen violations.
Exide melts down more than 22 million batteries each year, to recycle and reuse the lead in them. It’s run the Vernon facility since 2000, but one company or another has been doing the same work there for more than 90 years. The recent flurry of regulatory activity has reignited community fears about health impacts.
At a recent public meeting, Huntington Park resident Bertalina Chavac, a Communities for Better Environment member, described people of various ages suffering from lung cancer, liver cancer, and other diseases. No one has proven that Exide’s arsenic and lead emissions have caused cancers, but Chavac and others want to make sure the company is following all regulations.
Exide Technologies says it’s working with the AQMD to resolve problems. The company isn’t talking about the DTSC’s suspension order, but its lawyers have appealed it. In its legal notice of defense, Exide said the DTSC knew for years of issues the regulators now say are immediate dangers.
Liza Tucker, with Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, agrees with Exide on this point. She said that new cancer risk study is based on data collected by the South Coast Air Quality Management District – data that air regulators said they shared with the DTSC three years ago.
According to Tucker, the DTSC knew about the arsenic emissions. “There were tests done in 2008 and 2010 by those air regulators. And the results of those tests showed very clear elevated, sharply elevated emissions of arsenic into the air and then of course onto the ground, accumulating,” she said.
What goes up, must come down, Tucker reasons – so if the DTSC saw evidence of arsenic in the air, it should have investigated the possibility that it accumulated on the ground as toxic waste.
The DTSC has not responded to requests for comment on how long it’s known about the data on arsenic emissions. Tucker and neighborhood activists say they hope to learn more about what regulators knew at this week’s hearing. After the state’s regulators present their reasons for issuing the suspension order, Exide will present its defense – a chance to hear what the company has to say on the matter.
While Exide has remained silent publicly, the DTSC’s Ghazi said there are private talks ongoing with regulators. “And they have been negotiating with us,” he said. “It is confidential. They have been trying to negotiate with us to come up with a solution, how can they open up.”
Ghazi argues the dirty but important work of battery recycling is better monitored in the United States than in another country – and that, if possible, it’s better to keep sites like Exide’s running. The company’s workers agree. Exide has laid most of them off. A few people still do daily maintenance at the plant to limit the risk it poses even while shut down.
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