Los Angeles City Council members Wednesday expressed fury at recent revelations that arsenic emissions from a battery-recycling plant in nearby Vernon pose a danger to as many as 110,000 people, and called upon the city attorney to look into possible legal action.
"I'm outraged. I'm appalled," said Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights and chairs the council's committee on the environment. The committee had summoned officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District to a hearing on the risks posed by Exide Technologies.
Last month, the air district announced that Exide, one of the largest battery recyclers in the world, posed a higher cancer risk to more people than any of more than 450 facilities the agency has regulated in Southern California in the last 25 years.
The air district told the company to reduce its emissions and hold public meetings to inform people living in Huntington Park, Maywood, Boyle Heights and other areas of the risk. Those meetings will take place later this spring.
But council members also want Los Angeles city staff to produce a report within 30 days about what, if any, steps the city might take against the company or regulators of the facility.
"This is not our jurisdiction, but we have legal recourse," Huizar said. In an interview, he added that the city has sued state agencies in other cases, "and we're prepared to do the same."
As a father raising four children in Boyle Heights, he said, he is very concerned about the cumulative effects from industrial pollution.
Exide officials did not attend the hearing. A spokeswoman said they had not been told about it. But company officials said they have been working to reduce emissions since learning of the problem and last weekend installed a door on the entrance of a furnace. Tests over the next few weeks will show whether that has controlled emissions and what additional improvements may be required.
"Exide has really worked hard to protect people in the community," said spokeswoman Mary McCormick. "They have really gone out of their way to make sure that everything and anything is being done."
The 15-acre plant, which melts down up to 40,000 batteries a day, has been operating in Vernon since 1922. Exide purchased it in 2000, officials said.
For much of the last decade, health concerns at the plant have centered on lead, a primary component in batteries.
In 2007, elevated levels of lead were detected in the air around the plant. That resulted in a series of enforcement actions, including an unusual 2008 order from the air district that Exide cut its production in half until lead emissions came under control. The company enclosed parts of the operation and installed negative air pressure systems, and its lead emissions have fallen, officials said.
Lead can cause irreversible nerve and brain damage in children and health problems in adults.
AQMD officials became aware of the surprisingly high levels of arsenic emissions from Exide in late 2010. It took two years to figure out where in the plant they were coming from and quantify the risk to people and the environment. A study was completed earlier this year. It found emissions had elevated the cancer risk such that approximately 156 cases per million people could be expected to develop among workers in the industrial area near the plant. Risk calculations assume exposure over decades.
For residents living in adjacent areas, that risk is about 22 per million, according to air district officials.
The air district requires public notification when the cancer risk exceeds 10 per million.
Since 1987, when a program to regulate toxic emissions went into effect, only about 20 facilities in Southern California have reported cancer risks from emissions that were greater than 25 per million.
The company has 180 days to come up with a plan to fix the problem, and three years to implement it. However, Mohsen Nazemi, the air district's deputy executive officer, told council members that officials intend to see that the problem is fixed much sooner.
"We do not get these type of risks very often," Nazemi said.