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Exide recycling plant exceeds lead limits again, officials say

A Vernon battery recycler has once again exceeded South Coast Air Quality Management District lead limits, officials said Thursday.

Officials at Exide Technologies, one of the world's leading makers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries, told air district officials Wednesday evening that an air monitor had picked up elevated lead readings late last week. The plant cut production starting Thursday morning.

The latest problems with lead, the third such violation in the last 12 months, come as Exide is fighting an attempt by air district officials to temporarily shut down the plant until its air pollution control systems are improved and deemed adequate to control toxic emissions.

Last year, the air district released a study that showed the plant's arsenic emissions were posing an elevated cancer risk to 110,000 people living from Boyle Heights to Huntington Park.

But Exide officials say the plant's arsenic emissions have been drastically reduced and argue there is no cause for the air district's abatement order.

On Tuesday, the day before Exide informed air district officials of the lead emission violations, the company put out a press release touting a 95% drop in arsenic emissions. The release also said the plant was "meeting [the air district's] toxic air contaminant rule limits."

Barry Wallerstein, the air district's executive officer, called the latest issues at the plant "more than concerning."

"It's been a history of one thing right after another," he said of the plant's struggles to control its emissions, ticking off violations and a fire over the summer. "That leads to impacts on the community that just remain unacceptable."

Exide officials said they are investigating what caused the latest spike in lead emissions, and preliminary information suggests that it could be related to a one-time construction project at the facility that may have stirred up lead dust.

"Exide moved immediately to identify the issue and it currently appears to be a one-time, construction related incident," plant manager John Hogarth said in a statement. He added that Exide is "committed to complying with environmental regulations, protecting public health and operating a premier recycling facility."

Under air district rules, Exide's lead emissions cannot cause the outdoor air concentration of lead to exceed 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter based on a 30-day average. On Jan. 3, an air monitor on the north side of the property measured .3 micrograms, which put the 30-day average at .16 micrograms.

Exide has been the focus of intense attention from elected leaders, residents and officials in the nine months since the health risk assessment showed the elevated cancer risk posed by the plant.

Last April, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control moved to shut the plant down temporarily, citing health risks. But Exide appealed and a judge allowed the plant to resume operations.

The state toxics department entered into an agreement with the company that required Exide to spend $7.7 million for a new storm-water runoff system and improvements to reduce arsenic emissions, among other things.

In December, the toxics department released reports showing that lead and arsenic had been detected in several locations in residential areas around the plant.

The state also said that dust and soil samples with metals in concentrations at or near hazardous waste levels had been found nearer the facility, and must be cleaned up by Jan. 31.

In a statement released Thursday, state officials said they will "continue to work closely with [the air district] to ensure Exide operates safely."

But Huntington Park Councilwoman Karina Macias, who represents residents affected by the emissions, said the latest news left her "discouraged and mad."

"We need some type of action to be taken already, because this is past being acceptable," she said.

On Friday, the air district's governing board is scheduled to vote on stricter limits for arsenic, benzene and 1,3-butadiene for lead battery smelters.

A separate hearing board for the air district is also considering the petition to temporarily suspend operations at the plant, with more testimony scheduled later this month.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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