EXIDE VERNON: Exide lead smelter cleanup ‘ignites’ new fears; Decontamination could re-expose residents to lead, say health experts
Exide Plant Cleanup ‘Ignites’ New Fears
Decontamination could re-expose residents to lead, say health experts.
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
Restarting the 100-ton kettles to recapture lead at the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon could expose residents and workers within a two-mile radius of the facility to a new round of toxic levels of lead, warned residents, environmental activists and health experts at recent state sponsored public hearings.
Over 100,000 people have already suffered repeated exposure to levels of lead so high they can cause birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer, and other chronic health issues.
The latest round of concerns are in response to controversial options in Exide’s proposed closure plan for the decontaminating and dismantling the Vernon site, which among other things call for removing lead leftover from the smelting process.
Adding fuel to the fire is widespread mistrust of Exide and state regulators’ — the Dept. of Toxic Substance Control and South Coast Air Quality Management District’s —ability to protect public health during the cleanup process. The fears are deep and come following years of lax oversight that allowed Exide to violate state standards for toxic chemical emissions with near impunity.
“We don’t trust DTSC, AQMD or Exide to be part of the cleanup,” said Joe Gonzalez at a public hearing last week in Commerce to gather input into DTSC’s Draft Environmental Impact Report outlining proposals for the decontamination and dismantling of the battery producers’ plant in Vernon.
“It’s the fox watching the hen house,” the Boyle Heights resident said.
Exide closed the facility in March 2014 for equipment upgrades with plans to resume operations when complete.
According to DTSC, they were in the process of denying Exide the permit required to resume operations and in April 2015, to avoid federal criminal prosecution for its handling of hazardous waste, Exide agreed to permanently close the site and to clean up the contamination left behind.
On Saturday, the AQMD’s independent hearing board approved an amendment to the agency’s abatement order requiring Exide to comply with lead emissions standard, giving them enforcement power until the plant’s closure plan is finalized sometime in June.
The enforcement capability is important because the plant has violated lead emissions standards even while closed, although according to AQMD they have not exceeded lead and arsenic standard since December 2014.
The Draft EIR outlines how Exide plans to clean the site in a manner that is supposed to protect public health. DTSC is accepting comments on the plan until March 28, which will be included and considered in the Final EIR.
Exide is proposing to remove hazardous waste collected from the site by rail, and to remove lead from kettles mechanically or by using water jet cutting technology.
According to DTSC, all the alternatives under consideration pose minimal risk of recontamination or to air quality in the surrounding communities.
But Dr. Jill Johnston, an assistant professor at Keck School of Medicine at USC, said she does not see how re-melting the lead will not have a significant negative effect on workers and the surrounding community, considering the facility is using the existing air pollution controls that “we know have not been fully protective in the past.”
The community fears turning on any equipment at the site could lead to recontamination, reiterated Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
“We don’t want the kettles to be turned on,” said Lopez, adding that they do not want the work to be done by Exide workers.
At an Assembly hearing in Sacramento and the two hearings in Commerce last week, speakers testified they believe Exide’s lead and arsenic emissions are to blame for the startling number of people in their neighborhoods suffering with neurological diseases, cancer, autism, asthma, and other ailments associated with exposure to lead.
Gonzalez says he is dying of cancer; not too long ago his father succumbed to the disease. Of the 19 homes on his block, nine are home to someone with cancer or who has died of cancer. He does not understand why the government has not responded aggressively to the local disaster.
“We’re too dark to get the attention Porter Ranch is getting but not dark enough to get the attention Flint, Michigan is getting,” accused Gonzalez.
Community Technical Advisor Dr. James Wells said all three methods would carry the same environmental risk and therefore DTSC should be open to the community preference.
Johnston suggests the agency limit human contact with lead by adopting rules stricter than the out of date regulations adopted by CALOSHA in 1979.
“We simply cannot have any more workers poisoned by Exide,” she said.
DTSC has proposed extensive requirements to limit re-contamination including tarping buildings during dismantling, maintaining negative pressure and air pollution control devises on site, detailed indoor loading procedures, prescribed truck routes that avoid residential areas and real time air monitoring to prevent lead dust from migrating offsite.
After reviewing the draft closure plan, Lydia Nowal and others suggested DTSC consider video surveillance at the site. Other residents reiterated the need for GPS tracking, flags and placards on the trucks to help the public identify vehicles carrying the contaminated materials out of Vernon.
“That’s something we need to get reassurance” about, Nowal said.
Residents said their distrust is supported by the lack of action on the part of their elected officials, from Gov. Brown down to state and city representatives.
“The governor should be here, elected officials should be here,” Miguel Alfaro of Boyle Heights said. “The mayor [Eric Garcetti] himself lives just 2 miles away and he has never shown up to a meeting.”
While hearings are now focused on cleaning the Exide facility, many speakers argued that DTSC should be less focused on cleaning the uninhabited site and instead use all its resources to clean homes where people live.
According to some environmental contamination experts, at an estimated $400 million, the Exide clean up could be the most expensive in state history.
So far, only 200 homes out of the 10,000 potentially contaminated properties have been cleaned by DTSC. The agency currently only has enough resources to clean two homes a week, a rate that Gonzalez complained could drag the process out for decades, preventing children from being able to play in their own backyards.
DTSC spokesman Sandy Nax, however, told EGP the plant and residential cleanups are occurring simultaneously.
Miguel Alfaro of Boyle Heights told DTSC officials he has been fighting for Exide’s closure and urged urging an immediate cleanup for years.
“We’re already here, some of us for generations,” he said.
“We will never be able to pick up and move to greener pastures.”