California toxics regulators have slapped eight violations of state hazardous waste laws on lead-battery recycler Exide Technologies, whose Vernon plant is one of two such facilities west of the Mississippi.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control discovered the problems during site visits in the last seven weeks, including during an unannounced inspection conducted jointly with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Exide's smelter has been closed since last March under regulatory order. Its operations have been under increasing scrutiny since a study released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2013 concluded that airborne pollution from the plant significantly raised cancer risks for workers and for more than 100,000 households in Maywood and sections of East Los Angeles.
The company had recycled about 22 million batteries annually under state-granted authorization that, while technically temporary, existed for decades. But the company has said it intends to reopen and has applied for a permit from the DTSC.
"This particular inspection [in January] was a little bit different in that it was to 'ground truth' their permit application," said DTSC's deputy director for communications, Jim Marxen.
During a two-day visit last week, inspectors found sludge stored in a temporary system of unlined tanks, along with open containers of lead-battery wastes, some of which weren't labeled correctly, making it impossible for regulators to determine how long they'd been there.
Those and other major violations require immediate corrective action. State toxics officials noted holes in the walls and roof of the Vernon facility, and demanded that Exide cover them with tarps.
In a statement, Exide representatives said they were already working to correct the violations
“The Company [...] will continue to work with the DTSC so that all applicable standards and protocols are met," said Tom Strang, Exide's vice president for environment health and safety. "We intend to operate a premier recycling facility.”
The statement said Exide is working to install new systems to reduce pollution and comply with California’s air quality standards.
The company has until the end of the year to win a permanent operating permit from DTSC or cease handling toxic materials at the facility.
Last November, DTSC officials demanded that Exide lay out about $49 million towards cleanup, closure, penalties and costs – pending the approval of a federal bankruptcy judge.
Now that state regulators have issued this most recent notice of violations, Exide Technologies has 10 days to point out mitigating circumstances or dispute violations. As the process plays out, the company is likely to receive financial penalties, says the DTSC's Marxen.
"These violations, the violations last year, and all prior years are part" of the record DTSC will use in considering Exide's application for a lasting permission to operate, Marxen said. The DTSC has no deadline for completing its assessment of Exide's operations. "The ability and willingness of a facility to stay in compliance and come back into compliance is a big part of a permit consideration."