Regulators propose agreement to limit pollution from Exide plant

Regulators propose agreement to limit pollution from Exide plant
An agreement reached between the South Coast Air Quality Management District and Exide Technologies would require the Vernon battery recycler to install new pollution control equipment and take other measures to control emissions of lead and arsenic. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Air quality regulators have reached an agreement with Exide Technologies that would bar its battery recycling plant in Vernon from resuming operations until it installs new controls on arsenic emissions that pose a health risk to surrounding communities.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is asking its hearing board this week to approve two enforcement actions that have been agreed to by Exide, one of the world’s largest battery recyclers.

The abatement orders will be considered during a public meeting of the independent administrative law panel Wednesday evening at Maywood Academy High School.

The lead acid battery smelter has stoked community outrage since March 2013, when an air district report found that its arsenic emissions posed an elevated cancer risk for 110,000 people across southeast Los Angeles County.

The facility has been idle since March, when the company suspended operations because it was unable to comply with tough new air district rules. Those rules require it maintain negative pressure in its furnaces to keep toxic air contaminants from being released into surrounding neighborhoods.

Exide had sought a variance from that requirement, but the hearing board and a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied the company's request for more time to install new equipment. 

If approved by the hearing board, the orders would require Exide to comply with those rules and take additional measures to prevent lead-contaminated dust from being released during construction and maintenance.

As part of the deal, which was reached last week after months of negotiations, the company would drop its lawsuit against regulations the air district approved in January. Exide would also withdraw its challenges to the agency’s abatement proceedings.

South Coast air quality officials have issued more than 30 violation notices against Exide over the last two years, mostly for emitting too much lead. In May, the company was cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a string of lead emissions violations.

The agreement allows the air district to proceed with a lawsuit seeking $40 million in civil penalties from Exide for repeated air pollution violations.

David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the deal "a total win for the air district."

"They're getting everything they want in terms of getting the facility to comply with the new, very strict regulations that it has on its books and all the litigation goes away," he said.


But the proposal is unlikely to satisfy community groups and elected officials who have demanded the facility be shut down permanently.

"It's hard for the district to hear over and over again that people want this facility shut down, but it really becomes that simple when people have been living with a chronic violator for decades,” said Yana Garcia, an attorney with the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment.

Nancy Feldman, the air district's principal deputy district counsel, said the proposal means Exide has essentially conceded and agreed to go beyond what the regulations require.

Exide has told air quality officials it could take until late this year or early 2015 to complete the required upgrades and resume operations, said AQMD General Counsel Kurt Wiese.

The plant processes about 25,000 automotive batteries a day and is one of only two lead acid battery smelters west of the Rocky Mountains. The other, Quemetco Inc., is in the City of Industry.

For more on air quality and the environment, follow @tonybarboza