Sierra Club Opposes Expansion of the Quemetco Lead-Acid Battery Recycling Plant

  • Posted on 31 October 2018
  • By Joan Licari, San Gabriel Valley Task Force

The San Gabriel Valley Task Force of Angeles Chapter, the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier and Avocado Heights (CAC) with the Hacienda Heights Improvement Association (HHIA) have formed a coalition with residents to oppose expansion of the Quemetco lead/acid battery recycling plant in the City of Industry.  Residents are concerned about health impacts of past and present emissions of lead and arsenic from the facility. The facility is regulated by the same state agencies that have failed to protect the communities around the now closed Exide plant in Vernon.

Since closure of Exide, the Quemetco is the only lead/acid battery recycling plant operating in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains.  Quemetco recycles lead from used batteries and other lead-bearing scrap from the U.S. and foreign countries. The company is currently requesting two permits—an extension to operate for another ten years from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and a modification of permit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) to increase production from 20 to 24 hours with an increase in output by 25%.  

Residents in Hacienda Heights and North Whittier are opposing the expansion.  Many would like to see the facility shut down permanently. SCAQMD published a Notice of Preparation of Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Report and Initial Study with the comment period beginning on Aug. 31, 2018 and ending October 2th.  SCAQMD held a public scoping meeting in Hacienda Heights on Sept. 13th.  The agency was not prepared for the large, angry crowd that attended.  The meeting ended abruptly, and SCAQMD promised to hold another meeting with an extension of the comment period.  

The second public meeting to receive comments occurred Oct. 11th and the comment period was extended to Oct. 25th.  A comprehensive presentation by SCAQMD detailed the proposal, steps in the CEQA process, descriptions of processes at the plant, and equipment in place to protect the environment.  The public expressed concerns about possible health issues, additional traffic, the need for potable water at a time of drought when the local water table is at its lowest level in history.  Some adamantly called for shutting the plant down and asked why foreign materials are coming into their community.

The plant has been operating since 1959 in the eastern San Gabriel Valley; Quemetco took over the plant in 1970 from a previous operator.  Batteries are received, crushed and lead containing materials are stored, recovered, and purified. The lead components processed at Quemetco are sold to clients who use lead or lead alloys in a variety of processes. Most raw materials and finished products are transported to and from the plant by truck.  

Residents, some living within 600 feet of the plant, are concerned about potential health risks from lead, arsenic, cadmium and antimony--emissions commonly associated with such facilities that may have escaped to contaminate their homes, schools and parks nearby. Residents had commissioned soil tests in 2001.  High soil levels were detected but no action was taken. The plant has been subject to multiple violations over the years, as recently as 2016.

Currently controversy swirls around DTSC over lead contamination in soils.  In 2016 DTSC conducted a soil sampling program in the rights-of-ways, residential and commercial areas within a quarter mile of the Quemetco battery-recycling.  Tests were completed two years ago. The agency still has not released the results to the public. Residents want to know why.

The San Gabriel Valley Task Force requested and received a meeting with deputies of Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon about DTSC’s lack of response about the soil testing.   Members of Angeles Chapter, CAC, HHIA and representatives of Supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis met with deputies in Calderon’s office. Thanks to Ian Calderon’s office, a public meeting is now scheduled on Dec. 18th to reveal the results.

An independent study of lead concentration in children (ages to 17) is being conducted by KECK/USC.  Analysis of children’s lead levels in toenails and urine have not been concluded.

There is no known safe level for exposure to lead.  Lead particles and fumes escaping into air can be inhaled and deposited on soil and other surfaces including gardens and homes. Lead in the body can be distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones and is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Children and pets play in yards and can track it into homes.  Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of lead that affects development of the brain and nervous system. Accumulations of the metal can also be released into blood during pregnancy to expose a developing fetus.

Arsenic, a known cancer-causing agent, is another concern.  SCAQMD required Quemetco to prepare a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) for arsenic after studies indicated Quemetco’s operations exceeded health risk limits for public notification and an arsenic plume extended to the northwest.  Quemetco submitted a Risk Reduction Plan (RRP) for the annual arsenic emissions and a Conditional Approval was finally issued in 2017.

Angeles Chapter continues opposition to expansion of this plant and has submitted comments about environmental and social justice issues needed to be addressed in the DEIR.  We are awaiting DTSC soil test results, lead levels detected in the USC/Children’s study, and tests to determine the sources (fingerprinting) of lead found in sampling. 

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