Hazardous waste from an embattled Vernon battery recycler dripped from tractor-trailers onto public roadways last year, according to recently released public documents in which a state environmental inspector called the leaks an "on-going problem" that "needs to be addressed immediately."
The leaks of acid- and lead-tainted liquid could be an important piece of a criminal investigation of Exide Technologies by a federal grand jury. In a financial disclosure in August, the Milton, Ga.-based company reported that it had received a subpoena requesting "documents relating to materials transportation and air emissions" from its Vernon plant.
Spills were observed by state inspectors at the Vernon facility and by the California Highway Patrol, which last summer stopped a dripping tractor-trailer transporting acid battery waste from the Exide plant at a weigh station off Interstate 5 in Castaic, government records show.
The newly revealed problems are detailed in a series of California Department of Toxic Substances Control inspection reports and other public documents that were first reported by KCBS-TV, Channel 2.
Exide declined to comment on the issues raised in the documents because they were related to the grand jury investigation, said spokeswoman Vanessa Rodriguez.
The facility, which was idled in March and is about five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, has been under fire from community groups in recent years. Air quality regulators have cited Exide for emitting too much lead and arsenic, saying last year that the plant posed a health risk to more than 100,000 residents. State toxic waste regulators blame the plant's emissions for elevated levels of lead in the soil of dozens of homes in nearby Boyle Heights and Maywood.
On Aug. 10, 2013, during a stop on northbound Interstate 5 in Castaic, officers discovered battery acid leaking from a tractor-trailer onto the asphalt, according to a CHP incident report. The vehicle, owned by Lutrel Trucking Inc., was transporting plastic chips from the casings of crushed auto batteries to KW Plastics, a recycling facility in Bakersfield. Officers called the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hazardous materials division to clean up the spill.
Three days later, on Aug. 13, 2013, Department of Toxic Substances Control staff inspected the Exide facility in Vernon and found trailers storing those chips were leaking liquid with hazardous levels of lead, the agency's records show.
After finding similar problems at several more on-site inspections, state regulators in October 2013 cited Exide for three hazardous waste violations, directed the facility to take corrective action and to "store hazardous waste plastic chips in containers that do not leak."
Though it is not clear when it was written, a handwritten note in the state's citation also mentioned the trailer that CHP stopped on the interstate.
"DTSC is concerned that leaking from the containers while on public roads is an on-going problem, and this issue needs to be addressed immediately," the note said. "Leaking of hazardous waste is considered illegal disposal."
In a written response to questions from The Times, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said it discovered the leaking trailers at the Vernon facility in August 2013 and that the CHP report from Interstate 5 that same month was the only on-road incident the agency was aware of.
"Contamination levels of the release did not pose a public health risk," the agency's statement said. "There was no impact on the surrounding community or the environment."
The agency said the problem stemmed from a broken dryer the company had used to dry plastic chips from used battery casings, which are washed to remove lead and other hazardous waste.
"The Department will not allow Exide to transport chips in that type of trailer in the future," the agency's statement said, adding that it was reviewing a modification to its hazardous waste permit that would solve the problem by allowing the company to replace the broken dryer.
The department has for decades allowed the Exide facility in Vernon to operate with only a temporary permit, though a new state law requires the facility to obtain a full permit by the end of next year or be shut down.
The plant was idled because it could not meet strict new arsenic emissions rules adopted by local air quality officials in January. It has operated since 1922 and was taken over in 2000 by Exide, one of the world's largest producers of lead acid batteries. Exide filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.
Msgr. John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, whose parishioners have demanded the plant's permanent closure, called the latest development "another sign of the disrespect that Exide has exercised over the years as a bad neighbor."
Leaking trailers are not a new problem at the facility, state records show.
A 1990 report that California regulators submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that samples collected from loads shipped from the Vernon facility, then operated by the firm GNB, "found hazardous levels of lead leaking onto Interstate 5."