The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom and state regulatory agencies to turn down a request to expand operations at a City of Industry battery recycling plant.
Supervisor Hilda Solis — who represents the First District where the plant operated by Quemetco Inc. is located — proposed sending a letter to the Department of Toxic Substances Control and South Coast Air Quality Management District opposing the expansion.
Solis — who was instrumental in pressing for environmental cleanup around the now-shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon — said this fight was personal.
“Unfortunately, my father spent almost 20 years working there, while we were growing up,” without realizing the harmful effects, Solis said. “He ultimately ended up getting lead poisoning and also died of a heart attack, had several strokes.”
The Los Angeles Times reported the Quemetco plant had 111 workers in 2017 with lead levels that could cause miscarriage or heart disease with prolonged exposure.
The Quemetco recycling facility crushes and melts an estimated 600 tons of used lead-acid batteries daily and stores hazardous waste. The City of Industry plant is the only lead-acid battery recycling facility operating west of the Rocky Mountains, since the Exide plant in Vernon was shut down in March 2015.
Quemetco has been cited numerous times over the last 10 years for violating state environmental laws. The DTSC sued the company in November 2018 for 29 violations and the plant has also been cited by the SCAQMD for violations including exceeding the permitted level of arsenic emissions.
Its operating permit expired in 2015, but Quemetco has continued to run the facility while awaiting a decision from regulators on a proposed renewal.
“The county opposes Quemetco’s proposed expansion because it would increase hazardous waste, air pollution — including lead and arsenic emissions — and lead to water quality issues, traffic and other public health impacts in a community that has already suffered because of Quemetco’s actions,” Solis said.
Solis and Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-authored the motion, said both residents and workers are at risk and the DTSC should expand the scope of testing for lead. Lead contamination could affect a 1.6-mile radius around the plant, Hahn said.
“The Quemetco plant has repeatedly violated state laws in their handling of toxic substances, including lead, arsenic, and butadiene, endangering their own workers and nearby residents,” Hahn said. “These violations make it clear that this plant should not be awarded with an expansion permit and raise serious concerns about the facility’s current operations.”
Many long-time residents turned out in opposition to the expansion.
The plant is on 13 acres along South Seventh Avenue near the Pomona (60) Freeway and is surrounded by other industrial and commercial uses. However, a largely residential area sits less than a quarter-mile away, across a set of rail tracks and past other industrial buildings.
“It has no business being in a residential community,” said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez of the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights. “It’s legally allowed to emit arsenic and lead into our community.”
The company — which claims to be the cleanest lead recycling facility in the world — says it is committed to environmental safety and has invested nearly $50 million in pollution control and monitoring equipment since 2008.
It uses a wet electrostatic precipitator to “dramatically reduce emissions of lead, arsenic and other hazardous air pollutants” and also has an oxidizer that functions like an afterburner to destroy certain smog-forming compounds, according to Quemetco’s website.
Membranes line the plant floors and negative pressure is designed to prevent materials from escaping into the air when plant doors are opened.
Quemetco wants permission to use petroleum coke in its operations and to increase production from 20 to 24 hours a day.
With the results of soil sampling still unknown, Solis said approving any expansion would be “premature and irresponsible.”
Solis said she was hopeful that Newsom and Jared Blumenfeld, the new director of the California Environmental Protection Agency, would be responsive to the board’s concerns. Newsom and Blumenfeld will be copied, along with state legislators, on the board letter.
The board also voted to support proposed Assembly Bill 142, which would increase fees on lead-acid manufacturers to make more money available for cleanup efforts.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl noted that future technologies like electric cars would likely increase the demand for batteries and the need to recycle those batteries, wondering aloud about more eco-friendly solutions.
Hahn said the board didn’t oppose recycling.
“It’s not that we’re against battery recycling,” Hahn said, clarifying that it’s about making sure operators are responsible.
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