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Battery recycler Quemetco told to reduce cancer risk from arsenic emissions

Air quality officials have told a battery recycling plant in the City of Industry to cut its arsenic emissions after an assessment found they posed an increased cancer risk to 12,000 people. 

The South Coast Air Quality Management District on Tuesday gave lead-acid battery smelter Quemetco Inc. 30 days to notify residents of Avocado Heights, City of Industry, La Puente and Hacienda Heights of their health risks and six months to submit a plan to reduce arsenic emissions.

Craig Moyer, an attorney for Quemetco, called the 2013 emissions level that exceeded cancer risk thresholds an "outlier test” and said the facility has reduced its pollution each year since. 

Air quality regulators emphasized that the higher cancer risk at Quemetco is not from an increase in emissions, but was instead triggered by more stringent state guidelines.

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Those guidelines estimate cancer risk from breathing arsenic and other toxic air pollutants is more than three times higher than previously thought, even at the same level of exposure. The changes, adopted last year, reflected what scientists now believe was an underestimate of the health risks infants and children face from air pollution.

The findings will affect the company’s permit applications before the air district, which seek to increase its production by 25% and to operate around the clock.

“We’re not surprised," said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez with the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights. “This result confirms for us why we’re opposed to their application to process more batteries.”

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The company acknowledged Tuesday that it would have to take steps to ensure that expanding its production will not increase the cancer risk. 

The air district said it would hold a public meeting in the next two months to inform the community about health risks from Quemetco’s operations.

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After a similar health risk assessment in the mid-2000s found an elevated cancer risk, Quemetco paid more than $25 million to install an advanced pollution control system called a Wet Electrostatic Precipitator. Air quality officials say that equipment has significantly reduced emissions of lead and other toxic air pollutants.

Still, Quemetco has been cited several times in the last two years for violating emissions standards for benzene, a carcinogen, and once for releasing too much arsenic, according to air district records.

Quemetco spokesman Dan Kramer said its July 2014 arsenic citation was for an emissions violation on a single day and has not been repeated. He called the benzene violations "a technical disagreement” with air quality regulators over the appropriate testing method.

The latest findings of an elevated cancer risk come more than a year after Quemetco’s main competitor, Exide Technologies in Vernon, closed down permanently to avoid criminal charges as part of a deal with federal prosecutors after years of lead and arsenic pollution. The state is now ramping up a massive effort to test and clean thousands of homes near the shuttered Exide plant.

State toxic waste regulators have also required Quemetco to investigate lead contamination in surrounding neighborhoods. Starting this summer, state toxic waste regulators will oversee an effort by the company to test the soil of as many as 300 homes near the plant.

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Overmyer-Velazquez said the air district’s cancer risk finding “makes us even more concerned that there will be levels of lead and arsenic in the soil that will need to be cleaned up.”

The Department of Toxic Substances Control is reviewing Quemetco’s application to renew its hazardous waste permit, with a decision expected by the summer of 2018. 

With the closure of Exide, Quemetco, which has operated in Industry since 1959, is the only remaining lead-acid battery smelter west of the Mississippi, according to the company.

Wayne Nastri, a former industry consultant who was hired last month as the South Coast air district’s executive officer, has recused himself from decisions about Quemetco because he represented Quemetco and its parent company, Texas-based RSR Corp.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

@tonybarboza

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