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Air Quality Officials Seek Order to Close Exide Plant

A petition by air quality officials to shut down a lead-acid battery recycler in Vernon is “long overdue” according to Sen. Kevin de León.

He was responding to the announcement from the South Coast Air Quality Management District that it had filed the petition Oct. 18 with its Hearing Board —an independent administrative law panel – to shutter all lead smelting operations at the Exide plant in Vernon. The company has a long history of violations relating to the emission of cancer causing chemicals into the air that exceed state safety standards.

The Vernon plant, one of just two such plants operating west of the Rockies, recycles 23,000 to 41,000 batteries daily.

If approved, it would be the second shut down order issued this year. The first was appealed by Exide and overturned by a judge who said the company had demonstrated sufficient progress in resolving the air emission issues that had prompted the closure, allowing the plant to reopen.

De León urged the Board “to take swift and immediate action to shut this polluter down. Every time we turn the corner we find another outrageous example of how this company has continued to flagrantly poison the residents of the City of Vernon and nearby communities,” he said in a written statement.

Air quality officials, however, are not seeking a permanent shut down order as called for by residents and activists living in areas where the health risks from the emissions are the highest, including Boyle Heights, Maywood and Huntington Park. Instead, they have opted for a temporary shuttering of the facility “until its air pollution control systems are improved and deemed adequate to control arsenic emissions,” according to the SCAQMD announcement.

“Exide has had recurring operational problems this year and a troubled compliance history over the past several years,” said Barry Wallerstein, SCAQMD’s executive officer. “These problems have resulted in excess emissions of lead and arsenic – two highly toxic metals – that have imposed a significant health risk to people living or working in the surrounding area.”

Higher than safe emissions were recorded from the facility even as the company was under heightened scrutiny by the SQAMD and the state Department of Toxic Substance Control. As previously reported by EGP, local residents and other stakeholders have been pressuring air quality and elected officials for a permanent closure of the Exide plant amid concerns that the lead 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 neurological deficits in children.

The air quality district’s petition alleges that Exide has failed to “adequately control gaseous pollutant emissions including arsenic.”  Monitoring of Exide’s air pollution control systems for its smelting furnaces this fall found the company had failed “a significant portion of the time.”

Exide continues to violate several SCAQMD rules, the petition alleges. The company was issued a notice of violation of the rules on Oct. 8, according the announcement.

A health risk assessment, approved in March, showed that the facility’s arsenic emissions were causing an unacceptable health risk to residents in Southeast Los Angeles County. As a result, Exide was ordered to develop a risk reduction plan. SCAQMD staff is now reviewing the plan. Last Friday, SCAQMD issued two more notices of violation – one for exceeding the single-stack lead emission limit contained in Rule 1420.1 and the other for not curtailing its emissions by the required amounts.

In a statement responding to SCAQMD’s announcement, DTSC said it would support the agency’s closure petition and continue to work to ensure the public’s safety.

“Should the operation cease, we will ensure that management of hazardous waste will comply with all standards that protect the health of the community. DTSC will continue to use its authority to ensure that Exide’s onsite and community investigation work to characterize the impacts of their operation is not interrupted.”

Attorneys for SCAQMD and Exide will meet today with the Hearing Board to schedule hearings on the petition, which potentially could include public meetings in communities around Vernon.

The Hearing Board has the option to allow Exide to continue to operate pending final compliance.