Quemetco soil testing set to begin at end of the month

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After a series of delays, lead battery recycler Quemetco will begin testing soil around its plant in the City of Industry at the end of the month, according to a schedule submitted to the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Starting May 31 the lead battery recycler is set to begin sampling soil in major thoroughfares, along creek beds and on its own property. In late June the company will start testing residential properties; it’s expected to sample soil in nearly 300 yards.

Access agreements have been mailed to residents within a quarter-mile of the plant, and they’ve been asked to return them by May 27.  Representatives with Quemetco and DTSC are prepared to go door-to-door to get remaining access agreements, said Sandy Nax, spokesman for the agency.

Quemetco spokesman Dan Kramer says the testing process should be complete by September. The company expects to have two to three teams testing about three homes a day once the residential sampling begins.

The agency has "been aggressive to make sure we meet their deadline and timelines," said Kramer. "And we’ve stuck to that since we moved toward this implementation process."

According to the approved sampling plan, testing will take place at properties within a quarter of a mile of the plant but could be expanded out to one mile if necessary. The expansion could include up to 1,000 properties. The state had tried to order the company to start with a half-mile radius, but Quemetco refused.

The company and DTSC have been at odds for years over the particulars of the sampling process for lead, arsenic and other contaminants around the plant. At one point, the agency tossed out a previous soil sampling plan and asked the company to start again.

In March, Quemetco and DTSC agreed on the final sampling plan. The company submitted it’s implementation schedule last month.

The plan outlines identifying residential properties with lead levels higher than 80 parts per million and commercial sites with levels higher than 320 ppm. If the sampling finds elevated levels, DTSC will require a clean up.

The company also submitted its plan to attempt to source – or "fingerprint" - the lead back to Quemetco. The deadline for the original plan was January, but the company wanted more time to submit it. A DTSC spokesman said that plan is under review and the agency will issue a response to it by the end of the month.

The process is moving forward just as the company was put on notice by local air regulators, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, this week.

Air officials told the company that it must notify nearby residents – in Avocado Heights, City of Industry, La Puente and Hacienda Heights - of an increased cancer risk due to arsenic emissions from its lead smelting activities.

That's because the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment updated its cancer risk guidelines. The risk from arsenic rose five-fold and the agency found it had previously underestimated the impact of air toxics on infants and children. 

Quemetco has six months to develop a plan to reduce the risk and up to three years to reduce its cancer risk from 0.66 to 0.5 percent cancer cases, according to the air agency.

Air officials say Quemetco’s application to increase production by 25 percent is being reviewed and will be considered under the California Environmental Quality Act. The law requires an environmental impact review and multiple community meetings.

Kramer, the Quemetco spokesman, said the company believes it already meets the lower cancer risk standard because the assessment is based on a 2013 test, and he said the facility has been reducing emissions each year since then.

Quemetco has another permit application pending with the Department of Toxic Substances Control too. It’s the application to renew its operating permit. It was filed in March of 2015 and the agency is expected to decide by summer of 2018.

The company and DTSC  have been in a battle for decades. Twenty-five years ago the state first determined there was lead contamination in the surrounding neighborhood but no action was taken at that time.

Since then the state agency has penalized the company for various violations such as not disposing of waste properly. In 2008, the company said it installed equipment to reduce its lead emission.

Four years later, DTSC  found high levels of lead around the plant again and required the company to create a plan to address it.

Quemetco is the second lead battery recycler in the region to be ordered to test soil for lead. In Vernon, Exide was shuttered by the state and state officials are testing and cleaning up properties in a 1.7 mile radius around the plant that could involve up to 10,000 homes.

Correction: a previous version of the this story incorrectly described the state's new cancer risk threshold for arsenic. 

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