Exide Technologies, which once operated the now-shuttered battery recycling plant in Vernon, pushed back Wednesday against allegations by a county official, saying it wants access only to investigations on the source of lead exposure in the area, not private health data.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to join a lawsuit aimed at keeping confidential information controlled by the California Department of Public Health, focusing on the results of blood-lead level testing of children living in the area of the former Exide plant.
The information at issue also includes data on the age of local housing stock and investigators’ findings about the sources of lead exposure causing elevated blood-lead levels, according to a motion by Supervisor Hilda Solis.
Solis cited privacy concerns in recommending that the county file an amicus or “friend of the court” brief.
However, Exide said it is not interested in individual names, addresses or individual blood-lead level test results.
“Exide’s lawsuit merely seeks to obtain the results of investigations into the source of potential lead exposure and conclusions as to the cause of elevated blood lead levels,” the company said in a statement provided to City News Service.
Solis, who represents the First District where the plant was located, argued that the company was seeking “highly personal and private information,” calling the request “another shameful attack and deflection of responsibility from those who profited from operating this harmful polluting facility.”
“The information Exide seeks would be aggregated over one or more ZIP codes and individuals would not be identified,” the company stated. It cited the opinions of experts who testified that the data requested would comply with California privacy laws and carried no “meaningful risk” of identifiable personal information being disclosed.
A trial court agreed with Exide, ordering the California Department of Public Health on April 13 to release the data requested by Exide under the California Public Records Act.
The public health agency has appealed the ruling.
“The court decision fails to uphold our residents’ constitutional right to privacy,” Solis said.
At her recommendation, the board voted 4-0 to file an amicus brief in support of the CDPH appeal. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas did not attend the meeting.
The CDPH said it has disclosed as much of the requested information as legally allowed and that the remaining data includes variables that could be used to identify individual children with lead exposure.
Exide said the company has tried for some time to work with the agency to release data in a form that would maintain individuals’ privacy.
Lead testing results are required to be reported to the state agency, but only to prevent and control lead poisoning.
“Disclosure of this information would constitute a breach of trust with these families,” a CDPH spokesman wrote.
Solis agreed, warning that if the court’s decision is not overturned and sensitive health information is released, it may be hard for public health officials to gain cooperation in future medical investigations.
The public health agency refused to turn over individual test information even to other government agencies, including the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is charged with cleaning up contaminated soil in the area. The CDPH chose instead to conduct its own analysis of the results, which it released in April 2016.
That analysis, based on blood-lead level tests of more than 11,700 youngsters living within 4.4 miles of the Exide site, found that “children with higher blood-lead levels lived slightly nearer to the Exide site and there was a moderate increase in risk associated with living less than a mile (away).”
However, it also found that the age of housing in various neighborhoods around the plant was an “important predictor” of blood-lead levels, with the number of children with higher lead levels found to be significantly higher in areas with pre-1940s housing. More lead hazards tend to be found in older housing stock.
Clean-up of contaminated soil in the area continues, as do complaints by both residents and officials about the slow pace of that work by state regulators.
The Exide plant, which opened in 1922, was allowed to keep operating under a temporary permit for 33 years, despite continuing environmental violations.
When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant in 2015, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $176.6 million for testing and cleanup.
In March, state environmental regulators released maps identifying more than 2,000 properties near the former Exide plant with elevated lead concentrations in the soil, after sampling soil in Vernon, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Bell and Huntington Park. The interactive maps were based on tests conducted by the Department of Toxic Substances Control at 8,500 properties within 1.7 miles of the shuttered facility.
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