A $40 million lawsuit and two state bills are the latest additions to the arsenal of weapons being used to force Vernon-based Exide Technologies to clean up its act or be shut down.
Numerous violations of state standards for toxic chemical emissions, including lead and arsenic, have placed the acid-battery recycler under heightened scrutiny and have made it the target of a South Coast Air Quality Management District lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last week.
SCAQMD is demanding up to $40 million in penalties from Exide. The lawsuit accuses the company of various air quality standards violations, primarily involving illegal emissions of lead and arsenic.
“Exide has had a steady stream of operational problems that have resulted in excess toxic emissions,” SCAQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein said. “That is why we are seeking to recover a significant penalty from them,” he said.
For nearly a year, people living in east and southeast cities and neighborhoods impacted by Exide’s toxic emissions —a health risk assessment found that more than 110,000 residents had been exposed to an “unacceptable” increase in their cancer risk — have been up in arms about the company’s practices and what they say is a failure of regulatory agencies to quickly and adequately deal with the health crisis.
Longtime Boyle Heights resident and community activist Teresa Marquez said the recent actions taken by the state agency are just “too little, too late.” She says she feels the state has failed to protect the community from the harm caused by Exide.
“We’re happy this [lawsuit] is happening, but the damage has been done; people are sick,” she said. Marquez suggests that any money collected from Exide be used to help area residents pay for central air conditioning in their homes and for therapists for children with learning disabilities.
Exide Plant Manager John Hogarth, citing the latest health risk assessment conducted by the facility, told EGP the level of toxic emissions from the plant have been greatly reduced.
The air quality district’s lawsuit comes on the heels of its governing board’s adoption of a new regulation that sets stricter limits on arsenic emission from lead-acid battery recycling plants, specifically Exide and the Quemetco Inc. facility in the City of Industry, the only lead-acid battery plants on the West Coast.
According to AQMD, the new rule is the toughest in the nation.
Exide has been meeting all the requirements “as they come in,” Hogarth told EGP. He said the company is “confident” it will be able to meet the new standards that would reduce emission limits by 10 times.
On a separate front, AQMD’s Independent Hearing Board will soon make a decision on whether to shut down Exide’s smelting operations until the plant can improve its air pollution control systems to reduce arsenic emissions.
Sen. Kevin De Leon, who represents communities from Boyle Heights to Vernon affected by Exide’s emissions, says he welcomes AQMD’s “overdue” move to “clean up” the company.
“Human beings are being exposed to appalling levels of cancer causing poisons by Exide,” Sen. De Leon said. “If Exide can’t operate safely, they need to be shut down.”
Hogarth says the company is “sensitive” to the community’s concerns and he understands that as one of only two lead-acid battery-recycling plants west of the Rockies, many people might not understand the plant’s role as a recycler.
“We want to tell our story,” he said. “We’ve committed to reduce emissions and committed to the community to outreach and educate them that we are a part of the green community,” Hogarth said.
The issues at Exide have drawn attention to problems in the state’s Department of Toxic Controls’ (DTSC) permitting process for companies dealing with hazardous materials. Exide and other companies have been allowed to operate with only a temporary or expired permit for years.
Senators De Leon and Ricardo Lara have authored legislation to stop this practice. Statewide, 29 of the 117 hazardous waste facilities regulated by DTSC are currently operating on expired permits, according to De Leon, who accused DTSC during a Senate Environmental Quality Committee oversight hearing of failing to protect “poor communities.”
“It’s extremely frustrating that people in disadvantaged communities continue to suffer from high levels of pollution from hazardous waste facilities that are allowed by DTSC to continue to operate,” he said. “Its time to say stop. Facilities not in compliance with the law must be shut down.”
DTSC Hazardous Waste Program Deputy Director Brian Johnson, in an emailed statement, responded to claims that the agency has not done enough.
“We’ve made it very clear to Exide that we expect them to operate safety, and we are holding them to that standard. Our staff are out there nearly every day to ensure our enforcement order is carried out. We’ve imposed stringent requirements, tough deadlines and an automatic fine schedule if they don’t comply.”
A bill authored by Sen. Lara specifically requires Exide to complete the DTSC permit process by 2015 or risk its permit being revoked.
Lara, who represents communities surrounding Exide, including Maywood, Huntington Park and Vernon, said his bill is needed to protect public health.
“We are tired of DTSC dragging its feet, allowing this facility to operate for decades without an enforceable permit and to poison our neighborhoods over and over again,” he said
Hogarth told EGP that Exide is already “heavily regulated” by both DTSC and AQMD. He said the company is “on track” for completing the permitting process. “We want to get our permit.”
However, according to Hogarth, the permit process is sometimes a “moving target,” comparing the agency’s changing requirements to a “changing goal post.”
Marquez told EGP she hopes AQMD and DTSC work closer together in the future, but suggests more laws are needed to protect the public.
“There shouldn’t even be a interim permit category,” she said. Those companies that “fail to meet requirements should be closed and not allowed to reopen until they meet those requirements.”