EXIDE VERNON UPDATE: Three-day administrative hearing that will impact re-opening of Exide’s Vernon plant begins; community health risk meetings find citizens want Exide to clean up or shut down
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Vernon Battery Recycler Exide Seeks a Second Chance With Toxic Regulators
A battery recycling plant shut down in April by state regulators wants to reopen. Exide Technologies in Vernon suspended operations by order of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The agency was concerned about arsenic and lead leaking into the air, water and soil around Exide’s plant. At a hearing that begins Monday, Exide will make its case as to why it thinks the department’s decision was wrong.
State regulators suspended work at Exide in part because a newly-released study found that the plant’s arsenic emissions pose a severe cancer risk. In the immediate area around the facility, a study done by air officials estimates an elevated cancer risk of 156 cases per million people. A little farther away, in residential neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Huntington Park, the risk is 22 cases per million people. State law requires notifying the public when cancer risk from a facility reaches 10 cases per million people.
The other reason DTSC shuttered Exide is faulty stormwater pipes. The company’s own inspection video revealed some of the problems.
“We found out there’s sludge buildup in those pipes,” said Rizgar Ghazi, head of the permit division for the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “The pipes were cracked, there’s leakage from above, there’s leakage from below. So we know these pipes are not operating as they should be and they had uncontrolled releases to the environment.”
Ghazi said the study and the pipes were evidence of immediate and substantial danger to public health. “That’s why we used it as the basis for our order,” he said.
Exide’s not just in trouble with the DTSC. Back in March, the South Coast Air Quality Management District ordered the company to reduce arsenic emissions immediately and to hold public meetings to talk to the public about the risk. The AQMD has inspected Exide 277 times in the past four years. Since 2000, air officials have fined the company for $539,500 over more than 2 dozen violations.
Exide melts down more than 22 million batteries each year, to recycle and reuse the lead in them. It’s run the Vernon facility since 2000, but one company or another has been doing the same work there for more than 90 years. The recent flurry of regulatory activity has reignited community fears about health impacts.
At a recent public meeting, Huntington Park resident Bertalina Chavac, a Communities for Better Environment member, described people of various ages suffering from lung cancer, liver cancer, and other diseases. No one has proven that Exide’s arsenic and lead emissions have caused cancers, but Chavac and others want to make sure the company is following all regulations.
Exide Technologies says it’s working with the AQMD to resolve problems. The company isn’t talking about the DTSC’s suspension order, but its lawyers have appealed it. In its legal notice of defense, Exide said the DTSC knew for years of issues the regulators now say are immediate dangers.
Liza Tucker, with Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, agrees with Exide on this point. She said that new cancer risk study is based on data collected by the South Coast Air Quality Management District – data that air regulators said they shared with the DTSC three years ago.
According to Tucker, the DTSC knew about the arsenic emissions. “There were tests done in 2008 and 2010 by those air regulators. And the results of those tests showed very clear elevated, sharply elevated emissions of arsenic into the air and then of course onto the ground, accumulating,” she said.
What goes up, must come down, Tucker reasons – so if the DTSC saw evidence of arsenic in the air, it should have investigated the possibility that it accumulated on the ground as toxic waste.
The DTSC has not responded to requests for comment on how long it’s known about the data on arsenic emissions. Tucker and neighborhood activists say they hope to learn more about what regulators knew at this week’s hearing. After the state’s regulators present their reasons for issuing the suspension order, Exide will present its defense – a chance to hear what the company has to say on the matter.
While Exide has remained silent publicly, the DTSC’s Ghazi said there are private talks ongoing with regulators. “And they have been negotiating with us,” he said. “It is confidential. They have been trying to negotiate with us to come up with a solution, how can they open up.”
Ghazi argues the dirty but important work of battery recycling is better monitored in the United States than in another country – and that, if possible, it’s better to keep sites like Exide’s running. The company’s workers agree. Exide has laid most of them off. A few people still do daily maintenance at the plant to limit the risk it poses even while shut down.
Molly Peterson, Environment Reporter
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South Coast AQMD-Required Exide Health Risk Assessment Community Meetings
Community Asks Exide to Clean Up: Better Yet, Shut Down For Good
Union workers want the plan to reopen.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
June 6, 2013
Exide Technologies this week wrapped up a series of community meetings aimed at informing the public about the possible health risks they face as a result of their exposure to toxic emissions, including arsenic, from the battery recycling plant in Vernon.
The company was also in court this week, appealing an order from the state Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) to shut down the facility because hazardous waste and emissions are contaminating the soil and air, posing an “unacceptable” health risk to the public.
Local residents, elected officials and environmentalists are among the angry voices asking for a major overhaul before the plant is allowed to reopen. Some people living in the impacted areas are calling for the plant to be permanently shut down.
AQMD officials, pictured above, and Exide executives held a total of 8 public hearings in Huntington Park, Commerce, Boyle Heights and Vernon. (EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo)
The one chorus of voices that stands in support of Exide’s reopening is the plant’s approximately 120 unionized workers and their families, many who also live in the area.
While Vernon only has about 100 residents, over 50,000 people go to the city each day to work. They come from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and the neighboring cities of Huntington Park and Maywood, all areas that are predominately Latino and working-class. And while meetings were scheduled to take place in Huntington Park, Commerce, Boyle Heights and Vernon, no meetings were scheduled for Maywood, where residents and local officials have long contended that toxic waste emanating from Vernon has polluted their water supply.
Maywood Councilman Felipe Aguirre said his city requested that one of the public meetings be held there, but when that did not happen, Maywood residents flocked to the meetings in Huntington Park.
“Maywood is the closest group of people living next to the plant,” Aguirre told EGP. “In reality, I think Exide was probably scared to come to Maywood. They won’t be met with open arms, there are a lot of people in this community who are very sick.”
Exposure to arsenic can cause lung, liver, kidney, bladder and skin cancer if inhaled. Non-cancer risks include chronic and acute harm to child development, as well as cardiovascular, nervous system, respiratory and skin damage, explained AQMD presenters during one of three meetings held last Saturday in Commerce.
Maywood has had issues with their water for years. Harmful trace chemicals have made water look Tamarindo-colored (brown), Aguirre told EGP.
He said Exide is putting “band aids on” on antiquated machinery; “jerry-rigging” and doing “mickey mouse fixes” instead of a major overhaul to ensure the community will not be exposed to further emissions. He said Exide should follow the example of QUEMETCO, a lead-battery recycling plan located in the City of Industry that installed the Wet Electrostatic Precipitator, or WESP, a system that effectively lowered emissions of lead, arsenic and other pollutants.
Aguirre said the Exide plant should not reopen until it has a new filtration system in place. “We are not guinea pigs,” said Aguirre, who distrusts claims that the plant should be allowed to reopen so they can “fix the mess.”
East Yards for Community Justice headquartered in the City of Commerce told EGP they would not be opposed to Exide closing its doors permanently.
“The operations at Exide Technologies have caused the surrounding communities detrimental environmental health impacts,” the group told EGP in a written statement. They said they are extremely concerned that the company has been operating without “the best available pollution controls,’ and added that they will continue to monitor the situation and are ready to provide technical assistance if needed.
“We believe that the health risks that this site poses to the community are much greater than the benefits,” East Yards told EGP.
Joseph K. Lyou with the Coalition for Clean Air and an appointee of the governor to the AQMD governing board said Exide has the right to challenge DTSC’s order to cease operations.
“It’s my understanding that they can go to court or they could ask the judge to reverse the decision. On the DTSC end, its unclear how it will play out,” he said.
South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD, or AQMD), which manages air pollution in Orange County, and portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, in March ordered Exide to immediately reduce arsenic emissions and ordered the company to hold a public meeting informing the public about potential health risks from the harmful emissions. The company was previously cited for excessive lead emissions, but has been in compliance since January 2012, according to the AQMD presentation.
According to the AQMD, while Exide was only required to hold one public meeting, they were holding 8 meetings, three each in Huntington Park and Commerce, and one in both Boyle Heights and Vernon.
AQMD Media Relations Manager Sam Atwood said the number of meetings was unprecedented. “We knew we needed to have more than one because of the number of people affected,” he told EGP.
Philip M. Fine, AQMD Asst. Deputy Executive Officer, told EGP it was the “largest notification” ever done by the agency, and included “over 100,000 addresses.” He said there are 31 schools in the impacted area, and each school received a package with the health risk assessment results that were to be sent home with students. Fine said the meeting notices and health risk assessments were also distributed at public libraries.
The only school in Vernon, however, was never notified about the public meetings taking place, Vernon Elementary School Principal Fabiola Hernandez told EGP. A majority of the students at the school attend by permit, because their parents work in Vernon, according to Hernandez. But because the school is two miles from the plant, the AQMD does not consider it to be within the high-risk area, where 10 in1 million residents could develop cancer.
“Those schools that were not notified, had no risk associated,” Atwood said.
Commerce officials invited Exide to hold a public meeting in city facilities, but the company instead opted for the Doubletree Hotel on Saturday, City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP.
Joseph, an eighteen-year-old Commerce resident, attended the 11 a.m. public meeting at the hotel where he blamed Exide for his health issues.
“I have been exposed to these chemicals, and let me tell you I’m sick, no, I’m really sick,” he said. “I wake up with a throat full of blood, I get bloody noses and I probably have cancer, but I’m not sure of that…”
While he expressed some sympathy for laid off workers, the same could not be said for their corporate employer: “These people don’t care. All they care about is if they have money in their bank accounts so they can pay off their fat homes and spend all the money on needless things and personal gain,” Joseph said. “You people on the board should be ashamed for harming people knowingly and not doing anything about it.”
Commerce Mayor Joe Aguilar told EGP he was surprised more people did not turn out for the meetings. About 15 of the people at the 11 a.m. meeting wore T-shirts that identified them as United Steelworkers Local 675 members.
Martin Sanchez, a mechanic at the plant, defended Exide. He pointed out that some homes have lead contamination from old paint and that air pollution also comes from cars and other industrial activities.
“Even the sun can cause cancer, are they going to blame the company? I got a family too… We’re all healthy; we don’t have cancer. Stop blaming it on the company,” Sanchez said.
AQMD Executive Officer Barry R. Wallerstein, however, responded to Sanchez saying the risk discussion was specific to Exide. He said health risks are from calculations based on sampling the air relative to this particular facility.
“…The facility engineers, the scientist and their consultants and the AQMD scientists all agree that the emissions measured result in this risk,” he said, adding it is about protecting the public. “And in doing that, I believe there will also be improvements for the workers,” Wallerstein said.
AQMD is rquiring Exide to submit a Health Risk Reduction Plan before Sept. 1st. Exide is said to be installing a special door over a furnace to better filter the gasses and a secondary HEPA filtration system, as well as modifying an exiting HEPA filtration unit.
AQMD will also consider additional requirements such as regulations or permit conditions; the company has been operating on an interim permit for 35 years.
Secretary-Treasurer of United Steel Workers Local 675, David Campbell, said he agrees with “everything” Wallerstein said, “largely because according to the environmental regulations in California this plant is the most technologically advanced plant Exide has.”
He said they are willing to commit to the community that if Exide is allowed to reopen, they will “offer free health and safety and environmental training from our international union’s health and safety department, with simultaneous translation in Spanish.”
Plant Manager John Hogart has only been with Exide for four month but has worked for over 16 years with aluminum and steel companies in Vernon. He said he is hopeful the plant would reopen and resume operations.
“We work very closely with the AQMD, they are the air monitoring agency for the basin and we meet their requirements. We think we do a good service to our community, to the country; we recycle spent lead acid batteries…” Hogart told EGP Exide follows regulatory agency guidelines.
He would or could not respond to specific questions like why the company has been operating on an interim permit for 30 years, citing his short time with the company and the Exide’s pending appeal.
One resident, who noted he missed much of the presentation, expressed a sense of futility, which for many seemed to be the elephant in the room.
“Is there a place where we can vote and have our opinion count, whether or not we want to allow the potential risks to continue?” he asked AQMD officials, who responded by saying that by speaking up at the public meeting he is making his voice count.
Maywood’s Aguilar noted that about 10 years ago a business in Commerce left the ground contaminated, but generally the city works closely with AQMD to ensure companies there are in compliance.
He said it’s not an issue of each city regulating, and thinks “AQMD is doing the job they are supposed to, but there are too many companies and “people are short-handed, and there may be one or two that slip through the cracks,” he said.
Commerce’s city administrator said the city council took action in April by writing a letter to the City of Vernon urging them to take all actions available to them as s a charter city to ensure the company ceases operations until it demonstrates clearly that it is not endangering the health and safety of the people who live and work within the Southeast region.
Rifa also said AQMD made a presentation at a recent meeting on the health hazards that was televised on the city’s cable channel.
Vernon’s response to Commerce, a letter signed by Mayor Michael McCormick, noted that Vernon and its Health and Environmental Control Department (VHECD) do not have authority to regulate Exide for air emissions and toxic substances, but safety is a top priority for the 55,000 workers that come to the city every day.
The letter also indicates the city, which found out about the arsenic contamination through newspaper reports, was also alarmed and asked AQMD to issue a health advisory.
Following Vernon’s Council meeting on Tuesday, only Councilman Michael A Ybarra, a parent and grandparent of children born and raised in the city’s limits, said he was very concerned about the health risks.
Ybarra said he hopes Exide can meet all the regulatory standards again and receive a permanent permit. “We need the business,” he said. “Battery recycling needs to be processed correctly, but it needs to be done right.”
Rifa pointed out that Exide is a major corporation, that’s publicly traded and has locations in 80 countries: “This is not a flyby night operation. You would expect, given the nature of their operations there is a very strict philosophy about managing that plant and any of their plants,” Rifa said.
“If they are operating in a way that disregards the community’s safety and health that’s shameful and if they cannot operate in a way that is responsible to our community and their workers, they should not be operating,” Rifa said.
When asked, the Coalition for Clean Air’s Lyou agreed it’s ironic that recycling is supposed to be good for the environment, but in this case the battery recycling poses a health risk to the public.
“Recycling is supposed to be a good thing. Reusing the lead, there’s obviously a need to do this. We’re recycling batteries for our cars and boats. However, when the recycling is done in a away that puts people at risk for cancer, we need to make sure that people are protected,” Lyou said.
The outcome of Exide’s administrative hearing on the DTSC action was unclear as of time of publication.
Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer contributed to this story.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Exide plant workers and Vernon-area residents square off at meeting
Workers laid off from the battery recycler defend Exide’s safety record, urging regulators to allow the plant to reopen. Nearby residents, however, demand more protection from pollution.
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.