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Exide: Can’t Put Together Proper Closure Plan but Absolves Itself of Blame for Massive Public Health Disaster

The Expanded Assessment Area to the south of the Exide plant (located just across the river, at Bandini and Indiana. Source: DTSC

The Expanded Assessment Area to the south of Exide’s now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling plant (located across the river and just outside the frame, at Bandini and Indiana) where officials have found discernible patterns of lead contamination as well as the presence of a lead alloy that both point to Exide as the source of the contamination. Source: DTSC

“I want you to take a good look at me,” the fragile-looking young man with a curved spine, hunched shoulders, and gangly arms addressed members of the Exide Community Advisory Committee (CAC), representatives of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and Department of Public Health (DPH), and concerned residents and environmental justice advocates from the communities surrounding Exide Technologies’ now-shuttered lead-acid battery recycling facility.

“I look 13 years old, but I am 25.”

Anthony Gutierrez had grown up in Maywood, three-quarters of a mile from the Vernon facility. Like many present at the meeting, he believed his health had suffered for it. Cancer, rotting teeth, lead-related health issues, and other ailments had rendered him so sick that the Make-A-Wish Foundation — a charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses — had even sent him on a trip to Hawaii.

Although he, his mother, and his sister had recently moved to a one-bedroom apartment slightly farther away from Exide (but still on the northern edge of the Southern Sampling Area, seen above), new projections that lead emissions may have reached as many as 10,000 properties within a 1.3 to 1.7-mile radius around the facility meant that he still might not be safe.

DTSC ordered that further soil sampling be conducted outside the initial and expanded assessment areas. Samples were thus taken along the transect "Y" lines to determine how far lead dust had traveled. Source: DTSC

DTSC ordered that further soil sampling be conducted outside the initial (blue boxes) and expanded (green boxes and blown-up areas in images at top and below) assessment areas. An additional 351 samples were thus taken from 146 properties both within the 7500′ radius and along the Y-shaped transect lines to determine how far lead dust had traveled from Exide’s facilities (red block, at center). Source: DTSC

Noting he was recovering from a recent brain surgery, he said, “The sad part is [even though Exide has been shut down] I’m still being exposed to lead and arsenic and God knows what else,” and reiterated the need for the clean-up of lead-contaminated properties to pick up the pace.

It was a sentiment shared by the overwhelming majority of the attendees at last Thursday’s CAC meeting. They had been alarmed, but not necessarily surprised, by DTSC’s recent announcement that preliminary results of soil testing in expanded areas north and south of the plant suggested that Exide’s emissions deposited lead dust across a much wider swath of East and Southeast Los Angeles than previously estimated.

What concerned the stakeholders was whether DTSC would be able to secure the (potentially) hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to test and clean the affected homes falling within the newly-identified 1.3 to 1.7-mile radius around the facility (variable due to the prevailing winds, see illustration after the jump). Read more…

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Testing Around Exide Plant Continues, Community Voices Frustration over Lack of Clarity in Results

Map of the Expanded Assessment Areas. Testing for lead contamination was originally conducted in the green squares. The current round of testing was conducted in the wider assessment area. Source: DTSC

Map of the Expanded Assessment Areas. Testing for lead contamination was originally conducted in the green squares, based on modeling done by the AQMD regarding the distance and direction toxic particles might travel. The current round of testing was conducted in the wider assessment area. Source: DTSC

“I still don’t have a clear picture of what the results [of the lead testing in the Expanded Assessment Areas] are,” said a representative of Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.

We were now nearly two hours into a community workshop explicitly intended to brief residents on the extent to which lead emissions from Exide Technologies’ secondary smelting operations may have contaminated properties found within the Expanded Assessment Areas (see explanation, at left). And a number of stakeholders had met one-on-one with representatives of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and L.A. County Department of Public Health (DPH) in the two hours prior to the meeting to get the specific results of testing done on their property.

Having tracked Exide’s many air quality standards violations over the years and watched family members and friends suffer from the kinds of issues that run rampant in environmental justice (EJ) communities — asthma, cancer, developmental delays, etc. — residents were frustrated. Even as they celebrated the pending closure and dismantling of the battery recycler that they had battled for so long, they were still looking for definitive answers about what Exide had done to their community while it operated for 15 years under a temporary permit and with minimal oversight.

But the science doesn’t always comply with people’s wishes.

Read more…

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Victory in Our Time: Exide Plant to Close for Good, First Phase of Clean-Up of Site to Begin Immediately

The sign greeting visitors to Exide Technologies' Vernon facilities. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The sign greeting visitors to the now slated-to-be-shuttered battery recycling plant owned by Exide Technologies. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

As news began to trickle out Wednesday night that, under an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, embattled lead-acid battery recycler Exide Technologies will be forced to permanently shutter its Vernon plant, hope seemed to have finally been restored to those who have spent years clamoring for environmental justice.

In the 15 years since Exide took over operations at the Vernon site, it has repeatedly violated air quality and other standards by improperly storing lead-acid batteries, contaminating a drainage channel with lead, failing to clean up public areas it contaminated around the plant, spilling approximately 1136 lbs. of lead into the watershed (between 2003 and 2006), exceeding airborne lead emissions multiple times (including during the period it was closed for upgrades last year), not repairing degraded pipes carrying up to 310,000 gallons of contaminant-laden wastewater a day, and, most recently, storing “contaminated sludge in tanks that [it] is not authorized to operate,” failing to sufficiently protect against spills of hazardous waste, and “fail[ing] to minimize the possibility of any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous wastes or hazardous waste constituents to air, soil, or surface water.”

Most egregiously, Exide managed to accomplish all of these terrible feats while operating on an interim permit, something many in the surrounding communities have long viewed as negligence on the part of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), and other relevant authorities.

Exide didn’t even file its first application for a formal operating permit until 2006. Nor was it hit with any real financial penalties until very recently. By the DTSC’s own admission, between 1990 and 2015, it only levied a total of about $2 million in penalties against Exide and its predecessors in 10 separate enforcement actions. A $1.3 million fine — the bulk of that total — was not levied against Exide until November, 2014.

The agreement to close the plant will therefore be a largely welcome one for most in the surrounding communities (minus, of course, the 130 employees who have now permanently lost their jobs).

But it doesn’t mean we’re quite out of the woods, yet. Read more…

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DTSC Issues Eight Violations Against Exide after Inspection of Shuttered Facilities

The sign greeting visitors to Exide Technologies' Vernon facilities. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The sign greeting visitors to Exide Technologies’ Vernon facilities. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A press release sent out by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) this morning states that the DTSC has issued eight violations of state hazardous waste laws against embattled Vernon lead-acid battery recycler Exide for violations discovered during recent facility inspections it conducted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The violations are of concern.

Exide was ordered to cease smelting operations in March of 2014 because of its struggle to comply with new rules issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). The rules, approved in January of 2014, established requirements for the reduction of arsenic emissions and other key toxic air contaminant emissions, set requirements for ambient air concentration limits for arsenic, as well as hourly emission limits of arsenic, benzene, and 1,3-butadiene (all known carcinogens), and contained additional administrative, monitoring, and source testing requirements for stack emissions at lead-acid battery recycling facilities.

Unwilling to take responsibility for the health risk assessment, which had found that arsenic emissions from the plant posed an elevated cancer risk to as many as 110,000 people living in surrounding areas, and displeased by the more stringent emissions standards which required that Exide install costly new “negative pressure” air filtering equipment by April 10, 2014, Exide promptly sued.

To the relief of most residents, Exide lost its appeals and was forced to remain closed while cleaning up the facilities and making the required upgrades to the plant.

Which means that the current set of violations are a result of Exide’s failure to properly manage the very processes intended to help it operate more cleanly. Read more…

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Exposed: Oil Industry’s Astroturf Tactics Against CA Cap-and-Trade

The Western States Petroleum Association extols its campaigns against cap-and-trade purporting to represent “consumer concerns.” Source: WSPA

It’s no surprise that the oil industry is fighting California’s cap-and-trade program. But it is enlightening to see the strategy laid out in a leaked PowerPoint presentation [PDF].

Last week, Brad Wieners at Bloomberg Businessweek leaked a presentation put together by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), an oil industry lobby firm that operates in California. In the presentation slides, WSPA details its strategy to oppose regulatory efforts in California, Oregon, and Washington to combat climate change, including California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (A.B. 32), low carbon fuel standards, and the cap-and-trade system.

Examples of oil industry astroturf campaigns in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Images via WSPA powerpoint [PDF]

Examples of oil industry astroturf campaigns in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Images via WSPA powerpoint [PDF]

The main strategy is what Wieners calls an “astroturf campaign”:

Groups with names such as Oregon Climate Change Campaign, Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy, and AB 32 Implementation Group are made to look and sound like grassroots citizen-activists while promoting oil industry priorities and actually working against the implementation of AB 32.

One of those groups put together the “Stop the Hidden Gas Tax!” campaign, which tried to convince California consumers to protest against rising gas prices that will supposedly result from the fuel industry coming under cap-and-trade regulation in January. The campaign didn’t get much traction, perhaps because gas prices are falling, or perhaps because, as Tim O’Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund points out, California voters have support clean energy alternatives.

O’Connor told Business Week:

It’s eye-opening to see the lengths [the WSPA] has gone to push back rather than move forward. I don’t think anybody knew how cross-jurisdictional, cross-border, and extensive their investment is in creating a false consumer backlash against [climate legislation].

WSPA spokesperson Tupper Hull responded in the article:

We did not oppose AB 32 when it passed. We believe it’s good to have the reduction of greenhouse gases as a goal. We support that goal. [But] hundreds of pages of regulations have been added to what had been a page-and-a-half document, and we do object to many of the additions.”

However, WSPA took part in the formulation of those regulations.

A.B. 32, and its cap-and-trade regulations that charges industries money for the pollution they emit, is groundbreaking and frightening to big oil, as evidenced by WSPA’s presentation. It is just beginning to produce major funding streams for all kinds of sustainable programs, from affordable housing to transit to high speed rail, and the rest of the nation, and the world, are watching to see how well it succeeds. A.B. 32 could spawn climate change legislation elsewhere, equally noxious to the oil companies’ polluting habits, so no wonder they are attacking it every way they can.

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Exide Settlement with DTSC Limits (For Now)* Homes that Can Be Tested for Lead, County Supervisors Explore Legal Options

One of the two assessment areas where the DTSC conducted soil sampling looking for lead contamination. Image courtesy of DTSC

One of the two assessment areas where the DTSC conducted soil sampling looking for lead contamination. This one straddles the border of Boyle Heights and East L.A. Image courtesy of DTSC

Good news, good people of Maywood, Boyle Heights, and East L.A. who live within the limited assessment areas (see one, above)! The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) wants you to know that, per a Stipulation and Order settlement reached on November 6 with embattled Vernon-based lead-acid battery recycling plant Exide, if Exide has contaminated your yard with lead, it can be cleaned up at no cost to you! (emphasis theirs)

Hooray!

Er, wait.

If your yard has been contaminated with lead, you’re probably not too happy about it, given the connection of lead to developmental delays and learning difficulties in children and a host of physical ailments. And the fact that, per the settlement, Exide has up to five years to clean up your yard and home is probably not helping you feel any better about your situation. Nor is the knowledge that only two yards have been cleaned up since the announcement in February that almost all of the 39 yards and 2 schools tested in the first round of sampling had lead levels in excess of 80 parts per million (the level at which the DTSC requires a clean-up and the state recommends health-related testing).

If your yard doesn’t fall within one of the two (rather small) assessment areas — the designated areas the South Coast Air Quality Management District studies have revealed “to be most likely impacted by Exide’s emissions” — it could be a very long time before your is soil tested or any contamination is cleaned up on Exide’s dime.

According to the settlement, some time in the next four and a half years, Exide must submit “a Residential Corrective Measures Study to address all properties impacted by Facility operations that were not investigated or remediated during the initial five-year period” or part of the recently approved Interim Measures Work Plan (IMWP) Exide drafted to guide its clean-up procedures.

Any contamination found on any additional properties, as best I can tell from the settlement, would need to be addressed within a 10-year period and paid for with funds set aside by Exide for that purpose (see pp. 11-12 for details; clarification on future remediation plans will follow next week).

The Southern Assessment Area, located in Maywood. Source: DTSC

The Southern Assessment Area, located in Maywood. Source: DTSC

Which is something that may not sound as reassuring as the DTSC hopes, given their official responses to public comments on the draft IMWP, released this past Wednesday, November 19th (two weeks after the settlement was made), and the particularly large emissions footprint Exide is estimated to have (below). Read more…

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The DOGGR Days of Summer: DOGGR Seeks Public Comment on Proposed Fracking Regulations

Early drilling operations in Baldwin Hills (photo courtesy of L.A. Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2008/10/theres-been-muc.html)

Early drilling operations in Baldwin Hills (photo courtesy of L.A. Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2008/10/theres-been-muc.html)

It’s that time of year again.

Time for the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the agency tasked with regulating the Oil & Gas industry, to once again skip the home to one of the largest urban oil fields in the U.S. on its listening tour.

The occasion? DOGGR is seeking public comment on the latest version of the proposed regulations (released mid-June) regarding the use of unconventional well stimulation practices in oil and gas production.

Let me see if I can put what that entails into English.

With last year’s signing into law of Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), the highly imperfect but significant first step forward in regulating unconventional oil and gas drilling practices in California, DOGGR was officially tasked with taking on some of the very regulatory functions it had shied away from for years. These included defining a range of unconventional drilling practices (and related terms) and adopting rules and regulations specific to those practices that operators must be able to comply with to receive a permit to drill. The regulations, the bill specifies, are to be completed by January 1, 2015.

In addition to requiring operators seek specific permits for fracking and other unconventional practices — a first in the history of drilling in California — SB 4 orders the State to conduct an environmental impact report (EIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), analyzing the effects of hydraulic fracturing statewide by July 15, 2015 (DOGGR’s broad Notice of Preparation under CEQA can be found here).

This is also a first, as fracking operations have generally gotten around being subjected to CEQA reviews.

That doesn’t make SB 4’s approach perfect — it appears fracking can continue unabated, even while testing to determine whether it is safe is still underway (especially with the defeat of SB 1132 in May). But, it is still a major step forward, considering that, as recently as 2011, Governor Jerry Brown fired Elena Miller (who reviewed drilling permits at DOGGR) and Derek Chernow (acting director of the DoC), for slowing down the permitting process and suggesting that fracking operations should be subjected to CEQA.

The different deadlines for the completion of the regulations and the EIR are one of the many things activists point to as a being problematic. Why, for example, would the state require that regulations for drilling practices be put in place before studies examining the safety of those very practices are completed? And, will future drilling operations be subjected to project-specific CEQA reviews (and therefore a public process)? Much will depend on what comes out of the EIR.

Other problems quickly surfaced in the first set of draft regulations for public comment that DOGGR released last November, two months after the bill was signed into law. Read more…

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Exide’s Third Application for Permit to Handle Hazardous Waste Found Deficient

"God Bless America"? Really, Exide? Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren't showered in lead and arsenic. I'm just sayin'... Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“God Bless America”? Folks might feel a little more “blessed” if Exide didn’t shower them in lead and arsenic. I’m just sayin’… Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Just after I got word yesterday that the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) had determined that Exide Technologies’ third application for a formal permit to handle hazardous waste at their lead-acid battery recycling facility in Vernon was deficient, an email popped into my inbox from State Senator Ricardo Lara’s office.

Lara’s press release touted yesterday’s advancement of his bill, SB 712, from the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. The bill requires that Exide, which has operated in Vernon for 14 years with an interim permit from the DTSC, achieve compliance with federal and state hazardous waste laws by December 31, 2015 or be shut down.

The need for such a bill seemed strange — did we really need a bill to ask a corporation to comply with laws already on the books?

According to Lara, yes.

In the bill first presented before the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality this past January, he notes that, “There appear to be no repercussions for a facility that does not have a current and up-to-date permit [to handle hazardous waste] in place. In fact, there seem to be advantages to the facility by having the process continued for as long as possible under an interim or previous permit because a new permit is likely to require more stringent conditions and/or mitigation measures.”

It’s hard to argue with that reasoning.

Exide took over operations at the Vernon site from Gould-National Battery (GNB) in 2000, but apparently didn’t begin to draft an application for a formal permit until 2006. Meanwhile, they had already been fined by the DTSC in 2003 and 2004 for improper storage of the batteries, a lead-contaminated drainage channel, and failing to clean up public areas (sidewalks, etc.).

And, while their draft permit application seemingly went nowhere until it was submitted in 2011, Exide continued to violate air quality and other standards, even being charged with “contribut[ing] through deposition approximately 424 lbs. of lead in both 2004 and 2005, and 712 lbs. of lead in 2006 to the watershed.” Read more…

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Exide Cited for String of Lead Emissions Violations by EPA

"God Bless America"? Really, Exide? Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren't showered in lead and arsenic. I'm just sayin'... Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Folks might feel a little more blessed if they weren’t regularly showered in lead and arsenic. I’m just sayin’…  Exide Vernon Facility, Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

I receive my fair share of press releases regarding environmental happenings and community events, but few are more morbidly amusing than Exide Technologies’ efforts to paint itself as the good guy every time it is slammed with a massive violation.

The most recent one from the embattled Vernon lead-acid battery recycler is in response to an Environmental Protection Agency notice that Exide was in violation of lead emissions standards more than 30 times since September of last year and that it may be forced to pay fines of up to $37,500 per day/violation or be potentially subject to criminal penalties, should there be continued willful violations (below). [NOV Exide 05-22-2014 w Company Letter by jedskimkpcc]

A normal person might find the string of violations troubling, particularly since the plant ceased normal recycling operations in mid-March and the only on-site activity has been related to maintenance or upgrades to equipment. [Apparently, the maintenance efforts managed to kick up so much lead dust that the facility was a source of excessive lead emissions every single day between March 22nd and April 19th.]

Not Exide.

Taking a subtle dig at the EPA in its response to the report, the press statement noted that Exide was “dedicated [to] investing the time and money needed to improve the Vernon facility so it can resume recycling more than 9 million batteries per year while complying with the strictest emissions standards in the nation.”

As always, at the bottom of the statement, the company reminds readers of the “important role” Exide has played in “fostering California’s green economy and promoting environmental sustainability,” as one of only two west coast plants that recycles car batteries.

True as it may be that lead-acid battery recycling is incredibly important — approximately 97% of battery lead gets recycled — Exide’s claims to be preventing materials from being “disposed of in harmful ways or shipped overseas where regulations are lacking” ring a little hollow considering its recent track record. Read more…

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Some Thoughts on Near Roadway Air Pollution and L.A.’s Future

From Rob McConnell's presentation: air pollution spikes at freeways

From Rob McConnell’s presentation: air pollution spikes at freeways. Pollution levels drop quickly away from freeways.

I attended a forum event yesterday, entitled “The Collision of Best Intentions: Public Health, Smart Growth, and Land Use Planning.” Speakers focused  on “NRAP” – an acronym I wasn’t familiar with. NRAP stands for Near Roadway Air Pollution. It’s the study of pollution risks near freeways and other high-volume roads.

I confess that I have been only vaguely aware of NRAP. Years ago, I had heard about studies that show health issues correlate to areas close to freeways. I vaguely recall some efforts to keep schools at a tolerable distance from freeways. I am still not all that up to speed on this issue, so apologies if I have characterized anything incorrectly in this article.

The fundamental question that this conference explored was, basically: In the light of air pollution issues, is urban densification good for overall health? There are a number of corollary issues: On congested-polluted streets, is bicycling or walking healthy? Is Transit-Oriented-Development, or, more generally, infill development bad for our health?

For me, a car-free bike activist, these questions go to my fundamental core. Of course bicycling and walking are good! For me, for my community, my planet. I think that there’s a body of research that backs me up. Cyclists live longer than non-cyclists. Health benefits of cycling outweigh risks by 20:1, according to a London study. Inactivity is dangerous, in the long run. There’s also research showing that car occupants are exposed to unhealthy air quality inside cars, so, even if bicycling exposes me to roadway air pollution, I don’t think I am at any greater exposure than other folks using the road. And cyclists and pedestrians are on the edge of that pollution cloud, not in the thick of it the way drivers are.

I suspect that a lot of people make poorly informed decisions based on perceived risk. The most common example is that of the person who drives to their destination because they afraid of flying. Flying is, statistically mile-for-mile, way safer than driving.

I haven’t seen a clear study on this, but I tend to think that a similar ill-informed trade-off takes place with driving and bicycling. Replacing a perceived-dangerous ~10mph bicycle trip with a perceived-safe 50+mph car trip may well put a well-intentioned person at greater risk. Not bicycling in a polluted city, while instead driving in a polluted city doesn’t make good sense to me. My hunch is that it’s a similarly false trade-off, like driving instead of flying.

Back to yesterday’s forum.

From Rob McConnell's presentation: Asthma is worse closer to major roads.

From Rob McConnell’s presentation: Asthma is worse closer to major roads.

USC’s Rob McConnell presented on research that found clear relationships between proximity to freeways and rates of asthma and obesity. Apparently, historically, there was a general understanding that regional air pollution made asthma worse, but didn’t cause it. The current understanding is that roadway pollution causes asthma. Watch a similar talk by Rob McConnell here. McConnell also reviewed research linking NRAP with increased obesity.

These very real heath risks led researchers to investigate solutions. UCI’s Doug Houston spoke about a review of various structural tinkering to mitigate roadway pollution. Researchers have looked to soundwalls, sealed windows, taller building, vegetation, indoor air filtration, and more. Though those measures help, none of them quite solves the problem.

Read more…