California's Next Lead Pollution Scandal

One would think the Exide lead pollution scandal would have taught our top toxics regulator what never to do again. Instead, the agency is poised to repeat the same mistakes; this time with Exide’s rival lead battery recycler, Quemetco
 
Lead battery recycling involves breaking apart old car and other batteries, and smelting salvaged lead into ingots for resale. It's  nasty. Exide coated East Los Angeles with lead for decades. Quemetco did the same in the City of Industry, based on samples taken from surrounding properties more than 20 years ago. But in the case of Quemetco, there are homes only 400 feet away.
 
One way to make sure that polluters don't pollute is to make them put their money where their mouth is.
 
Under California law, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is supposed to require companies like Exide to put up realistic amounts of money to close down the facility and make sure contamination doesn't migrate as a condition of operation. That so-called assurance of financial responsiblity does not cover ordered corrective actions such as cleaning up contamination outside the site. But California statute has that covered too. It directs the DTSC to require a company to show them the money required for a cleanup as a condition of a new permit.
 
The agency required what amounted to Monopoly money from Exide, and it’s doing the same with Quemetco. Exide put up a measly $10 million to cover both closure and cleanup, according to documents in the DTSC’s online database. The real tab, according to DTSC insiders, is between $100 million and $200 million when you consider thousands of residential properties may need a cleanup.
 
In an Exide repeat, the DTSC required Quemetco to put up only $7.8 million to close the facility. Quemetco has some liability insurance for releases from equipment on its site, but nothing for an extensive cleanup of people's yards. Consumer Watchdog has asked the Department’s Director and head of permitting three times to tell us how much money Quemetco will be required to put up to clean up lead in the neighborhood as a condition of its new permit. Three times Consumer Watchdog has gotten evasions.
 
Conservatively, let’s say 1,000 homes will need clean up. Multiply that number by around $40,000—which is roughly the number DTSC is using to estimate cost for cleaning up homes around Exide — and that comes to $40 million right off the bat. If the agency does not require at least that kind of cleanup money as a condition of operation, the public will be left holding the bag once again — as it is with Exide.
 
The DTSC was aware of Exide's pollution and its breaking of environmental laws for decades. A dedicated agency staffer tells us that upper management shut down enforcement efforts in favor of issuing the company a permit that never came. Taking Exide's pollution and compliance history into account in deciding if it should get a permit evidently never entered the equation.
 
Just as the DTSC knew about Exide's transgressions and did little, the agency has known about Quemetco's and done little. The company has stored hazardous waste illegally and allowed buildings to crumble and gotten only wrist-slaps. Just as DTSC knew about hazardous waste levels of lead outside Exide's gates, it has known about hazardous waste levels of lead on properties outside Quemetco’s.  
 
In 1992, DTSC notified two property owners near Quemetco that sampling showed lead at hazardous waste levels. The agency directed them to contact the Los Angeles County health services department, where the findings fell into a black hole. DTSC efforts in 2005 to force the company to clean up lead on its perimeter touched off company complaints, As usual, upper-level DTSC managers folded like a wet paper bag. 
 
Exide thumbed its nose at the DTSC, surely thankful that it had put up only a pittance to operate without a permit at all. Quemetco, a prolific emitter of lead, antimony, arsenic, and chromium compounds, according to the US EPA, has exceeded limits on emissions set in its current permit, according to a 2014 memo by a staff geologist who noted,“What seems clear is that, more often than not, Quemetco is not in compliance with the provisions listed in their General Permit." Yet the DTSC is fixing to issue Quemetco a new one anyway. 
 
Now, the DTSC is finally requiring Quemetco to test for hazardous waste levels of lead outside its gates and is likely to find the same hazardous waste levels of lead as it has around Exide. But a workplan to force the company to test up to a half-mile radius around the facility was beaten back by Quemetco to a quarter-mile radius after the DTSC simply allowed the company to say, no.
 
Quemetco will do its own “fingerprinting” of lead, which it has claimed does not come from the facility. Smelters emit very specific metals, including antimony, into the environment. Last year, the DTSC cancelled a contract with a renowned scientist on track to fingerprint Exide’s lead emissions. Now, it’s trusting Quemetco to point a finger at itself.
 
The DTSC is so cowed by industry that it took the federal authorities to shut Exide down under threat of criminal prosecution. If only the DTSC had used the financial tools at its disposal, there would have been the money to clean up East Los Angeles rather than let hazardous waste levels of lead threaten children with irreversible brain damage. It’s criminal that DTSC didn’t use those tools. It’s also criminal that the agency stubbornly chooses to repeat the same mistakes with Quemetco.
 
When it comes to industry, the DTSC’s mantra is: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Do No Evil. The same can’t be said for what the agency is doing to the public’s health, not to mention the public wallet. The real question is why California's Governor and legislators allow it.

Capitol Watchdog is owned and operated by nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. For more information about Consumer Watchdog visit http://www.consumerwatchdog.org

 
 

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