Exide Technologies is suing the California Department of Public Health to obtain more data about the sources of lead contamination around its former battery recycling plant in Vernon. The state is pushing back, arguing that releasing the information would threaten the privacy rights of lead-poisoned children.
Exide says it's seeking the data so it can more accurately evaluate lead contamination in the community and its potential sources. Critics suggest the suit is an attempt by Exide to dodge financial responsibility for the lead cleanup around its facility.
Exide filed its suit in April. In a statement to KPCC, the company says the state Department of Public Health had previously released "incomplete information, which Exide believes has portrayed an inaccurate picture of the extent and sources of lead impacts, and has led to inaccurate statements by others about the situation." Its lawyer declined requests for an interview.
Exide has requested the ages of the homes in which 720 lead-poisoned Los Angeles County children live.
An analysis released in April by Public Health found that young children living near Exide had higher levels of lead in their blood than those living farther away, but it also concluded that the age of their homes may be as important a factor as proximity to the facility.
The state says it's willing to provide the company with housing age information, but it won't comply with Exide's request that the data be linked to other information it's already provided, including an individual child's blood test, age at the time of the test, city of residence and zip code.
The state argues this information could be used to identify the affected children.
Public Health, and the state Attorney General's office, which is representing the department in the suit, declined to comment on the case.
The Los Angeles County Counsel's office did weigh in with an amicus brief supporting Public Health.
"With knowledge of building ages, Exide and other third parties can cross-reference publicly available building age data in discrete zip codes or communities with the information it already has obtained to pinpoint the location and identity of lead poisoned children," the brief reads.
Exide says in in its statement that it's not seeking any information that could potentially identify anyone.
The company has also requested that Public Health provide any conclusions or data regarding the source of the lead-poisoned children's exposure. The state is resisting providing that information as well, in part out of privacy concerns.
Along with protecting the children's identities, the state also has an obligation to maintain trust in its public health initiatives, says UCLA School of Law professor Allison Hoffman.
"The viability of the state's public health programs rely on people trusting them, and trusting the state to keep their data private," she says. "People won't want to go to the state if they think that it could compromise their privacy."
Liza Tucker of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog hints at another motive behind Exide's data request.
"Exide wants to be able to say - and this is what polluters do constantly - that the source of pollution isn't theirs," she says.
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed emergency legislation approving $176.6 million to clean up about 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead. The money is a loan from the general fund; the legislation requires the state to seek reimbursement from Exide for the cost of the cleanup.
The state is testing the soil at some 10,000 properties; experts estimate the ultimate cost of the entire lead cleanup could reach $400 million.
Tucker says the problem with the company trying to pin the lead contamination on other sources, such as lead paint, is that "there's lead everywhere. It's on the roofs, it's in the gutters, it's also all over the soil. So the idea that somehow it's the lead paint inside the homes that's entirely to blame for this problem is a specious argument – it just doesn't wash."
The next hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for Wednesday.