Exide and Quemetco: Comparing the Clean Up of L.A.'s Lead Battery Plants

The following guest post was written by attorney, Caroline Reiser, who is currently working at NRDC's Santa Monica office for the Southern California Air Program.

Located within 20 miles of each other, Exide Technologies of Vernon, CA, and Quemetco Battery Recycling in City of Industry, CA are the only two battery recyclers in the U.S. west of the Rockies. Both facilities recover lead from car batteries which they smelt into ingots and then sell. And that's not all they have in common. As many in the local community have learned, both facilities have a long history of polluting which seems to finally be catching up to them.

Without the right controls, the recycling process that occurs at Exide and Quemetco can release into the environment hazardous toxins, such as lead, a neurotoxin with effects on IQ and learning ability, and arsenic, a carcinogen. Not only are these toxins emitted into the air to be inhaled, they can also be deposited on the ground, accumulate in dirt, and be tracked into houses where they can then be inhaled or ingested. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) regulates the pollutants released into the air, while the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) deals with the pollutants that end up in the soil. DTSC has a long and sorry history of ignoring the soil pollution caused by Exide and Quemetco, but in the last two years DTSC has been facing up to just how much damage Exide and Quemetco have caused in the surrounding communities.

Soil testing in 2014 of homes and schools near Exide showed lead levels above the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment's screening level; some lead levels were over 10 times the screening level. DTSC announced in August 2015 that lead dust may have polluted as many as 10,000 homes. Admitting felony violations of federal law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA), Exide agreed in March to shut down the Vernon facility in order to avoid criminal charges. The company has also agreed to spend $38.6 million to clean up the facility and $9 million to clean the nearest homes, a process that was started in late 2015. Unfortunately, with sampling still to be done and Exide having declared bankruptcy, it's unclear whether there is enough funding to complete the job. Extrapolating from the ongoing costs of home cleanups, the total bill could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars - money that neither Exide nor DTSC has on hand.

Following the debacle at Exide, this year DTSC decided that Quemetco also needs to determine how much it has polluted its community. Over the last few months, DTSC and Quemetco have traded workplans laying out the process Quemetco will follow in testing for pollutants like lead and arsenic. DTSC, unsatisfied with the draft plan Quemetco submitted in August, finalized a plan on its own in October. Quemetco, however, opposed this October workplan, essentially because the company doesn't believe it is responsible for all of the toxins located in the area. Lead, for example, can also be present in a community from paints and gasoline. Quemetco argues that it therefore unfair to bear the cost of testing for the toxins without first determining where any contamination originated. This seems backwards to us. DTSC compromised with Quemetco and agreed that the company could start testing in a small area, a ¼ mile radius out from the facility. Only if high levels of toxins are found in this small testing area will the company have to continue sampling, expanding to an area of at least a ½ mile radius, if not more.

DTSC has also given Quemetco until early January to finalize a chemical fingerprint technology, the process for determining if any toxin discovered originated from the facility. While it can seem obvious who the culprit is based on the location and high levels of a toxin, by looking at things like the particle size, types of contaminants, and weather conditions, it's possible to determine more definitely the source of the toxins.

Exide had complications with fingerprinting. DTSC originally caved to industry pressure not to use fingerprint technology at the Exide site, claiming it would be impossible to use. In the end, DTSC and Exide agreed to clean up first, and then figure out the fingerprinting.

It's encouraging to see that, unlike with Exide, with Quemetco DTSC has put its foot down and required the company to figure out the fingerprinting in the beginning. We'll be watching to see what Quemetco suggests, to ensure adequate testing is done and that Quemetco and Exide clean up their act.

About the Authors

David Pettit

Senior Attorney, Southern California Air program

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