The plant, which has been a source of community outrage since regulators announced last year that its arsenic emissions posed a danger to more than 100,000 people, has been idle since March. Last month, Exide announced temporary layoffs of nearly all its employees.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District already had cited Exide for the same excessive lead concentrations outside the plant that were cited by the EPA. The violations were on numerous days in September 2013 and January, March and April of this year.
However, because the EPA approved those local air quality rules under the Clean Air Act, the federal agency has the authority to enforce them and did so this week, issuing its own violation notice against the company.
"By releasing an illegal amount of lead into the air, Exide has put the health and well-being of nearby residents at risk," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, in a statement.
Although the federal agency has conducted inspections at the facility, this is the first time it has cited the battery recycler, said EPA spokeswoman Nahal Mogharabi.
In a statement, Exide officials noted that the EPA had cited "past violations" and that the company is attempting to upgrade and reopen the facility. Exide is seeking approval from state and local regulators to move forward with upgrades.
"The company is dedicated to investing the time and money needed to improve the Vernon facility so it can resume recycling more than 9 million batteries per year while complying with the strictest emissions standards in the nation," said E.N. "Bud" DeSart, one of the company's senior directors, in a statement.
Exide has 10 days to respond to the EPA and may request a conference with the agency to present information related to the violations and efforts it has taken to address them, according to the notice of violation.
The EPA could fine Exide up to $37,500 per day for each violation. The agency said its investigation of the facility was ongoing.
State regulators have said California law requires Exide to clean the Vernon site even if it shuts down.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey), who represents Vernon and other communities affected by the plant, said in a statement that the EPA's announcement bolstered her belief that the plant should remain shuttered.
"Exide should stay closed until it can prove beyond any doubt that it will no longer emit harmful pollutants into our communities," she said. "I am confident [the EPA's] announcement is one more step toward a healthier Southeast community."