Frightened residents and worried workers squared off Thursday in an emotional public meeting about the potential health risks posed by a battery recycler in Vernon accused of releasing dangerous levels of lead and airborne arsenic.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control suspended operations at Exide Technologies last month after The Times published articles about its arsenic emissions. The South Coast Air Quality Management District said the plant posed an elevated cancer risk to as many as 110,000 people. In addition, state toxics officials said Exide had continually released hazardous waste into the soil beneath its plant because of a degraded pipeline.
But at a meeting in nearby Huntington Park, dozens of the more than 100 Exide workers laid off when the operation was shut down defended the plant’s safety record and urged regulators to allow it to reopen. “Stop trying to destroy our family,” one worker’s wife, Sandra Gutierrez, told the crowd. “Let’s stop trying to blame everything on Exide.”
Area residents, some in tears, begged regulators to do more to protect them from pollution, which they worried was leading to cancer, asthma and unexplained health problems.
“The children in this community … are suffering many illnesses,” Ana Haney told the crowd in Spanish as Exide officials and air district regulators looked on.
The company, one of the world’s largest makers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries, has run afoul of regulators around the country. It has closed or suspended operations at three U.S. recycling plants in the last year, including the one in Vernon, in the face of public and political pressure.
The Georgia-based firm, which operates in more than 80 countries and had net sales of $3.1 billion last year, continues to recycle batteries in Missouri and Indiana and manufactures batteries in seven states.
The meeting in the Huntington Park Community Center was the first of several required by the air district because a recent assessment showed an elevated cancer risk to people living in nearby communities, including Maywood, Boyle Heights and Commerce.
Exide’s arsenic emissions were estimated to create a risk of about 156 cancer cases per million people among nearby workers over decades of exposure. For residents farther away in Boyle Heights, the risk was estimated at about 22 per million. Under district regulations, the public must be warned when risk from a facility reaches 10 per million.
John Hogarth, the plant manager at the Vernon operation, said officials plan to “fully comply” with air district mandates to reduce arsenic emissions, and have already cut them substantially.
He said the company is “committed to the environment.”
Exide is fighting the temporary suspension order issued by the state toxics department. A hearing on that matter is set for June 3-5 before an administrative law judge in Los Angeles.