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Exide to begin testing for dangerous metals buildup in neighborhood

Responding to Exide neighbors' health concerns, California ordered Vernon battery plant to test for toxic substances in soil and dust.

August 27, 2013|By Jessica Garrison
  • Exide battery plant in Vernon must begin testing dust and soil nearby for buildup of toxic substances it may have emitted in earlier years. Cleanup could be required.
Exide battery plant in Vernon must begin testing dust and soil nearby for… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

State officials have ordered a Vernon battery recycler to begin testing dust and soil in the neighborhood around its plant to determine whether dangerous metals have accumulated and are posing a health risk to the community.

In April, the state tried to close the Exide Technologies facility, after an analysis released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District showed that arsenic emissions from the plant were posing an increased cancer risk to as many as 110,000 people in Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park and other places. The state also contended that the plant was continuously leaking hazardous waste through a faulty pipeline.

But Exide appealed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, arguing that it had fixed much of its arsenic emission problem and that regulators were acting capriciously under public and political pressure. A judge sided with the company, saying it could resume operations pending a full hearing this fall on temporary closure.

Residents and elected leaders in the surrounding communities say they fear the operation is harming their health and that regulators have failed to protect them.

Now, state officials are seeking to determine whether arsenic, lead and other substances may have been released from the facility in the past and accumulated on properties around the plant.

"I think it's long overdue," said Msgr. John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, where parishioners have been concerned about the health effects of the plant for years.

Rizgar Ghazi, who chief of permitting for the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control, said technicians will begin testing near the facility and move outward in concentric circles.

"My hunch is we will find lead right off site," he said. "At what concentrations, how far does it extend? We don't know that, I'll be honest."

If officials discover that the lead has accumulated some distance from the facility, he said, they are prepared to test at two nearby schools, San Antonio Elementary in Huntington Park and Salazar Park Head Start in East L.A.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin. Children are more vulnerable than adults and can suffer learning disabilities even with limited exposure. Arsenic, a carcinogen, can also cause nausea, decreased blood-cell production and abnormal heart rhythm.

If contamination is found, officials said, they will order Exide to clean it up immediately

Toxics department officials said dust sampling will begin Thursday, and soil sampling by Oct. 1. Findings are due by Nov. 15.

Exide officials could not be reached for comment.

Although plans remain in place for a fall hearing on temporary closure, Exide, one of the world's largest makers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries, has been cooperating with toxics department officials to bring its facility into compliance, and officials said they are hoping to work out a settlement.

Any agreement would have to be approved by a bankruptcy judge, because Exide filed for bankruptcy earlier this summer.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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