Vernon battery recycler Exide Technologies has been ordered to cut production by air quality officials because air monitors near the facility recorded lead emissions that exceed health standards, the L.A. Times reported Wednesday.
The higher than safe levels were recorded over a 30-day period, and come on the heels of calls for the company’s permanent shut down, and an announcement that the embattled company will pay for county residents worried they may have been harmed by lead emissions to get free blood tests at the company’s expense. The free blood tests will be available to thousands of people living in an area that includes Boyle Heights and the nearby cities of Maywood and Huntington Park, as well Vernon.
As EGP reported last week, local residents are organizing with other stakeholders in the region to collectively pressure for the permanent closure of the Exide plant amid concerns that the battery recycler has created a health crisis for hundreds of thousands of people living and working in the region, raising the cancer risk and the possibility of increased neurological deficits in children.
The California Air Quality Management District had been monitoring Exide emissions to see if the company has really reduced harmful emissions as it had claimed to regulatory agencies and to a judge who overturned an shut down order by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, following excessively high readings of lead and arsenic were found in the spring.
More costly and complicated testing for arsenic, however, will not be part of the free testing protocol, according to health officials.
While many are welcoming the opportunity to be tested, some community and environmental activists are questioning the reliability and value of lead testing several months after the heightened exposure. They worry that the tests are being conducted to placate concerned residents, but will do little to pinpoint the source of any high levels of lead found, since data from the tests are not going to be analyzed or compiled into a study or report, but are for individual consideration only, leaving Exide off the hook.
Nonetheless, Vernon Director of Health and Environmental Control Leonard Grossberg said Monday that news of the free lead testing is “a step in the right direction.” He said, during his update to the city council on the Exide situation, the testing announcement shows “that they [Exide] are active in the community” and trying to educate the public about “the possibility for exposure.”
Testing, however, is being conducted at the insistence of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Brian Johnson, Deputy Director for DTSC’s Hazardous Waste Management Program, told EGP Tuesday in an email.
“Blood, dust and soil testing in the nearby communities are activities that DTSC has insisted that Exide implement and have been central to our discussions with them since we suspended their operation,” Johnson said. “We have partnered with the LA County Health Department, who bring their substantial expertise to ensure that we have scientific and health data on which we can base future decisions regarding Exide’s responsibilities.”
Testing will be conducted under the direction of the County Board of Supervisors and partner agencies that include DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, according the Los Angeles Dept. of Public Health.
Details as to when and where the free tests will be available are still being finalized, according to health officials.
Johnson told EGP that DTSC’s goal for Exide is the same goal they have for all hazardous waste operations, to ensure that neither their current or past operations pose a risk to public health nor the environment.
Since 2007, Exide has violated both AQMD and state lead emission safety standards on three different occasions.
Earlier this year, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) shut the plant down because the agency found that the facility was releasing hazardous levels of lead and arsenic into the air, as well as “metal bearing” waste into the soil.
Under order from DTSC, Exide began taking soil and dust samples late last month at adjacent properties. The samples will be analyzed for lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals known to increase the risk of cancer, neurological damage and other health issues.
Grossberg told Vernon council members this week that the regional water quality control board continues to monitor the storm water plan for offsite water discharges. He said Exide proposes to remove all the existing underground piping and test to see if there is any exposure to the soil or ground water.
Council members, not usually very vocal on the issues that come before them, questioned Grossberg regarding the city’s response to the Exide situation.
Mayor Pro Tem William Davis wanted to know what happened to the city’s request to the AQMD back in April for the agency to issue a health advisory in response to the findings of excessive harmful emissions by Exide.
“AQMD has not issued a health advisory because it lacks the scientific proof that anyone, not to mention 250, 000 people, are being harmed right now, to date, from any emissions from the Exide plant operations,” Grossberg responded.
“Without that proof they could not issue the health risk advisory and I cannot issue a health risk advisory,” he said, one day before AQMD officials ordered Exide to cut production.
Councilman Richard Masiano asked if the city is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of the workers at Exide and its surrounding residents? Grossberg said the city is doing everything within its power, and regularly communicates with AQMD, DTSC.
“Vernon’s Department of Health and Environmental Control continues to share the public concern regarding important public health and safety issues and pledges to do anything within our city power to safeguard the lives of our residents, business employees and residents of our neighboring communities,” Grossberg said.
Vernon is taking heat from surrounding communities that believe the city can shut Exide down by changing its zoning codes.
City Administrator Mark Whitworth asked whether there is a legal avenue the city can pursue to revoke Exide’s permit to operate in the city.
It was Los Angeles County that approved using the property where Exide is now located for lead smelting back in 1922, before it was annexed into Vernon in 1959, according to Deputy City Attorney Scott Porter. He said the city cannot change its zoning codes to shut down Exide.
“The constitution and zoning don’t work like that. No city may legally amend their zoning code to thereby illegally prohibit operation of a multi-million dollar facility, which has been recently upgraded to the tune of many thousand of dollars, simply to meet air quality standards,” Porter told the council.
The equal protection clause in the constitution requires cities to treat all similarly situated business owners equally, he said.
“The city cannot legally say to Exide owners ‘even though you’ve never violated our zoning codes, because we don’t like you, you’re hereby shutdown effective immediately,’” Porter said.
“The city cannot legally shut down Exide for violations of AQMD’s or DTSC’s pollution standards, only the AQMD and DTSC can legally enforce their own standards.”
Meanwhile, plans to start the blood tests still have other obstacles to overcome. According to DTSC Spokeswoman Tamma Adamek, said while DTSC wants testing to begin and for Exide to pay for the tests, it “will require approval from the bankruptcy court” because Exide filed for bankruptcy in June, and as a result, a bankruptcy judge must approve all expenditures.
Information from City News Service was used in this report.