Air quality board OKs tighter pollution limits for battery recyclers

New air quality rules will halve the amount of lead emissions allowed from Exide and Quemetco plants.

Air quality officials imposed stricter emissions limits on two Los Angeles County battery recycling plants Friday, attempting to protect surrounding communities from lead pollution released by Exide Technologies in Vernon.

The rules, approved on an 11-to-1 vote by the South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board, come in response to tests since 2013 that found elevated levels of lead in the soil near Exide and in surrounding homes and yards. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin for which there is no known safe level of exposure.

The limits reduce by half the amount of lead emissions allowed from the plants, cut the allowed concentrations of lead in the air nearby and require the battery facilities to monitor air quality daily instead of every three days. The stricter rules apply to Exide and Quemetco Inc., in the City of Industry, the only two lead-acid battery smelters west of the Rocky Mountains.

Residents of Maywood, Boyle Heights and other communities around the Exide plant packed the air district board’s public hearing in Long Beach and urged officials to adopt even more stringent standards to force the currently idled Exide plant to install better pollution controls or shut down permanently.

Both Exide and Quemetco representatives told air quality officials the companies will be able to comply with the new rules. But the companies are at odds over the governing board’s decision Friday to consider even tighter lead emissions limits in six months. Quemetco proposed the stronger restrictions.

In a letter to AQMD officials this week, Exide Vice President Thomas Strang said the company cannot meet the more stringent lead standard backed by its competitor Quemetco. He alleged that the company’s proposal “seeks to drive Exide out of business.”

The Exide plant has been idle for the last year because it could not comply with previous arsenic emissions standards the air district adopted. The company is spending more than $15 million upgrading its pollution controls and expects to complete the work by June, Strang’s Mar. 4 letter said.

Quemetco spent $25 million several years ago to install a Wet Electrostatic Precipitator, a more effective pollution control system than Exide has.

Steve Farkas, an attorney for Quemetco, said the air district “picked a limit that Exide could already meet without spending any additional resources.” He denied that Quemetco’s stricter proposal was intended to put Exide out of business.

Exide has been under fire from regulators, elected officials and community groups in recent years for emitting too much lead and arsenic and violating hazardous waste laws. Under state orders, the company is paying to clean homes and yards in Boyle Heights and Maywood that have been contaminated by the company’s lead emissions.

Quemetco was cited last July for excessive arsenic emissions, air district records show.
Friday’s vote marks the third time since January 2014 that regional air quality regulators have tightened pollution limits on battery recyclers.

Twitter: @tonybarboza

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