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Air regulators seek public comment on Vernon battery recycler

An employee wearing a breathing mask works at Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant has discharged harmful amounts of lead into surrounding communities.
An employee wearing a breathing mask works at Exide Technologies, a battery recycling plant has discharged harmful amounts of lead into surrounding communities.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

Update 5:00 p.m: More than a hundred people turned out for the South Coast Air Quality Management District's hearing about the Vernon-based Exide battery recycling plant.

AQMD is asking for the district’s independent quasi-judicial board for an abatement order that would force Exide to halt all lead smelting operations until it comes into compliance with rules to control emissions of arsenic metals from its blast furnace.

The air district said the battery recycler hasn't property maintained air pollution control systems in the past, which resulted in excess emissions of lead and arsenic. 

AQMD lead attorney Nancy Feldman made the district's opening statement.

She said Exide's argument is that the company has decreased its arsenic emissions since air quality regulators became aware of the problem but she argued that doesn’t mean the company is in compliance.

“These rules are adopted solely to protect the public health and welfare of every person living in the South Coast air basin,” Feldman said.

Exide officials contend the company has already taken measures to significantly reduce emissions by installing filtration systems and closing up previously exposed areas of the plant.

Attorney Steve O'Neill spoke on behalf of Exide.  He said there is no existing rule on the books that would require the plant to have negative pressure in its blast furnace.
"The district is trying to impose a standard that does not exist in any rule or any permit condition," he said. 

O'Neill also testified that Exide's testing shows a 98% reduction in emissions.

Members of the public including; state and local politicians, and resident of cities that neighbor the battery recycling plant in Vernon, also spoke.  Most residents expressed concerns about their health and the health of loved ones. Several told stories of neighbors dying of cancer and respiratory breathing problems.

Sandra Martinez asked for the plant to be closed. She talked about her son who frequently visits the emergency room frequently with asthma problems.

“I want my children to live a long life,” she said. “I want them to be here when I pass away. I don’t want to bury a child.”

Others said they’re frustrated with having to attend multiple regulation hearings about Exide’s operations.

“Let’s look at some of the other communities that are being helped out with having polluters taken out of the neighborhood,” said Boyle Heights resident Jose Gonzales. “Newport Beach took out fire rings.”

At least three people spoke in support of Exide, claiming the company has made improvements over the last few years. One woman said plant employees are residents from the surrounding communities with good jobs. 

"I ask that the board actually looks at facts when they make the ruling," said Juan Felix who described himself as a plant worker. 

David Campbell is the secretary-treasure of the local United Steel Workers union that represents workers at the Exide plant. He acknowledged the community's concern but believes Exide is serious about solving its environmental problems. 

"Clearly there are a lot of people who want the plant shut down but they are frustrated by the past," he said. "I can't really blame them for that." 

Campbell said he doesn't want to see workers pitted against the community.

The board will hold one more public hearing to gather testimony from the community. A separate meeting is scheduled for Jan. 7 at AQMD’s Diamond Bar location.

-Erika Aguilar

Update 10:15 a.m. The public hearing has begun.   Dozens of people are in attendance.  Representatives from Exide Technologies and  South Coast Air Quality Management will make opening statements and then take comments from residents.

Tweet from Erika Aguilar

- Erika Aguilar

Previously: Regional air quality regulators are holding a public hearing Saturday to get comments on whether to shut down lead smelting operations at a controversial battery recycling plant in Vernon. 

The Exide Technologies plant at 2700 South Indiana Street is one of the largest recycling plants for lead-acid batteries in the country. It's also become a lightening rod for residents in communities east of Los Angeles who worry that pollution from the plant puts them at risk of cancer and other diseases.

In October, lawyers for the South Coast Air Quality Management District formally called on the district's hearing board to order Exide to stop smelting operations until it can prove it's taken step to control emissions of arsenic and other gases. (The AQMD also rejected the company's risk reduction plan that month.)  

In March air regulators released a study finding that emissions from the plant contained levels of arsenic that significantly raised the risk of cancer for people living and working nearby. Since then, regulators have found numerous pollution violations and operational problems at the plant.

Representatives from Exide did not return requests for comment.

The public hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday in the Golden Eagle Building on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles.

RELATED: Follow a timeline for Exide's history

— Molly Peterson