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LA Council Committee Considers Taking Legal Action Against Vernon-Based Facility

The City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee instructed the City Attorney’s Office and staff Wednesday to report back on how the city can take legal action against Exide Technologies, owners of a Vernon-based battery recycling facility recently cited for emitting potentially harmful levels of arsenic into nearby neighborhoods.

“I want to make sure the exposure levels are addressed immediately by Exide,” Councilman Jose Huizar said during a committee meeting Wednesday.

Officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors stationary sources of air pollution, estimated earlier this month the battery recycling facility has been releasing high levels of toxic arsenic emissions affecting a radius of about 110,000 people, some of them residents in Huizar’s district.

“We want to make sure we move forward and express to Exide we want this done at all costs. I don’t think any life has a price to it,” Huizar said. “Exide is adding toxic air pollution to Boyle Heights, in an area that already has unacceptable levels of air pollution.”

The arsenic emissions are high enough that the cancer risk for those closest to the facility – mostly people who work in nearby buildings – is 156 cancer cases in 1 million, while those in nearby residential neighborhoods including in Maywood, Huntington Park as well as in Los Angeles, have risks of between 10 in 1 million and 22 in 1 million.

The air pollution monitoring agency notifies the public if toxic emission levels reach 10 in 1 million, and if levels go to 25 in 1 million, the agency requires that the companies make changes to their facilities.

Exide has since installed some pollution control measures, which has reduced the emissions, “but from our point of view, it’s not a permanent fix and we want them to do more,” South Coast Air Quality Management District Deputy Executive Officer Mohsen Nazemi told the committee.

Nazemi added that typically companies have three years to come back with a permanent fix, but the monitoring agency wants Exide to improve their control systems in a few month’s time.

The cost of designing a “brand new air pollution system” could potentially cost the company “millions of dollars,” Nazemi told City News Service.

“They may not have to do that, but it will still be relatively costly” to implement a less drastic fix, he said.

Exide, which recycles 20,000 to 40,000 lead acid batteries a day, first came under scrutiny for its lead levels, which were so high that they pushed Los Angeles County’s overall levels of lead emissions beyond federally acceptable limits, Nazemi said.

The company’s lead levels are now under control, Nazemi said, but amid stricter monitoring of the facility’s operations, they discovered “fugitive” arsenic emissions were leaking out of the facility.

Nazemi said the arsenic emission appeared to have been going into the atmosphere since 2010, if not earlier.

Committee member and Councilman Dennis Zine also requested that staff bring back information on how many of the company’s employees have contracted cancer.

Whether employees have contracted cancer at higher than normal levels “plays into how serious this factor is, not only for the community, but for the employees who work there,” Zine said.

“And it may be that some of those employees live in the community, so when they leave work and take off their protective gear, they’re going to get exposed again.”

Exide Technologies purchased the Vernon facility 10 years ago, though the plant, one of just two left “west of the Rockies” that recycles lead acid batteries, has been in Los Angeles since the 1920s.