Toxic lead wasn't ours, Exide says

Times Staff Writer

Dangerous levels of toxic lead were emitted by a Southern California battery recycling facility for months, until regulators ordered the facility to cut production by almost half, officials said.

An Exide Technologies facility in Vernon, one of just two such battery recycling facilities west of the Rockies, was emitting lead at levels nearly twice the allowable federal limits from December to April, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District staff. Regulators began investigating after receiving complaints about ash fallout and damage to car rooftops across the street in the industrial area.

But company officials are fighting the findings and the mandatory slowdown, saying their monitors have shown no abnormally high levels.

Jack London, the plant's smelting manager, said the high levels had been registered by an AQMD monitor across the street at a plastics manufacturer.

"We're not trying to point fingers at anybody; we're trying to be good neighbors," London said. "The way they did the monitoring we feel is challengeable, and that's what we're doing right now."

AQMD lead attorney Kurt Wiese said one of several monitors might have been moved. Nonetheless, "we stand by the monitoring results," he said. "Our best scientific determination is that the lead emissions are coming from Exide, and significantly, as Exide's [production] has dropped . . . monitored lead levels have dropped as well."

Lead exposure in even relatively small amounts can cause nerve damage, childhood retardation and other serious problems. Federal officials are weighing whether to tighten existing lead limits.

"Lead is a highly toxic air pollutant," said Barry Wallerstein, AQMD's executive officer, in a written statement. "AQMD has taken necessary steps to ensure that Exide's emissions will not pose a threat to public health."

The agency also ordered the plant to plug any holes in its building, install more monitors, clean up dust on rooftop areas and sweep nearby roads and sidewalks three times a day. If lead emissions stay low, the Exide plant will be allowed to increase production gradually.

The emissions occurred in an industrial area, and the nearest residential area is about three-quarters of a mile away, well beyond where any lead emissions were detected, AQMD staff said. But as a precaution, the agency will put a monitor in the nearest residential neighborhood in the next few weeks. The agency was to have held a community meeting Thursday night in Maywood to discuss the issue.

AQMD staff also said they did not know whether workers in the facility or surrounding area had been notified that they might have been exposed. Los Angeles County health officials, the Board of Supervisors and Cal/OSHA were all notified of the emissions, AQMD spokeswoman Tina Cherry said. She said no response was received that she knew of.

Employees of the Exide plant are required to wear some respiratory equipment to protect them from lead emissions, London said. Monthly blood testing is also done, he said.

"We take this stuff very seriously," he said.

The Exide plant normally processes about 40 truckloads -- 800 tons -- of lead-acid batteries five days a week, London said. Being ordered to reduce its throughput by about 40% has cost the company dearly.

"That's why we're fighting it; it puts us in financial straits big-time," he said.

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janet.wilson@latimes.com

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