Wearing breathing devices, employees move boxes at the Exide battery recycling… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Since she was 13, Tiffany Arroyo lived with the smoke and rotten-egg smell from an Exide battery-recycling plant just blocks from her grandparents' home in Laureldale, Pa.
"It was horrible, just horrible, to go outside and smell it," Arroyo, now 30, said of the recently idled facility. "And the stuff that came out of the chimney, you could see it just everywhere for miles. In the morning, you'd have dust on the car, like gray dust, and it would cover the grass."
So much lead dust poured from the plant, which Exide acquired in the 1980s, that it contaminated hundreds of residential properties including her grandparents' yard.
The emissions prompted the 1996 closure of a nearby park and lake, which only recently reopened. Exide has removed tainted soil from the 25-acre park, but Arroyo said she still won't take her 6-year-old daughter there to play.
"I don't think I ever will," she said.
Exide Technologies, one of the world's largest makers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries, has left a trail of pollution and health worries across the country. Since last November, it has closed or suspended operations at three U.S. recycling operations in the face of public and political pressure. Over the years, it has left communities struggling with decades-old contamination and questioning why regulators didn't act sooner.
The Georgia-based company, which operates in more than 80 countries and had net sales of $3.1 billion last year, continues to recycle batteries in Missouri and Indiana after halting operations at plants in California, Pennsylvania and Texas. It also manufactures batteries in seven states, according to its website.
In April, California officials suspended operations at an Exide lead recycler — or smelter — in Vernon, citing emissions of arsenic as a health risk to 110,000 people in surrounding communities. Regulators said the plant, which for years also discharged harmful quantities of lead, posed a higher cancer risk to more people than any of the more than 450 regulated facilities in Southern California in the last 25 years.
Since 2010, seven Exide operations have been linked to ambient airborne lead levels that posed a health risk, a Times review of EPA and local and state government data showed. The areas in which Exide was found to be a significant source of lead included Los Angeles; Frisco, Texas; Muncie, Ind.; Salina, Kan.; Bristol, Tenn.; Reading, Pa., and Forest City, Mo.
That is about a third of all such areas identified by the EPA in the country during that period.
Exide officials say the company works hard to protect public health and the environment, while recycling millions of batteries for cars, boats and heavy equipment. The company spends "millions of dollars a year monitoring and remediating problems," and has retrofitted recycling facilities to keep up with new regulatory standards, spokeswoman Susan Jaramillo said, adding that the company takes its obligations "very seriously."
"When environmental problems have been identified, Exide has worked with regulators to identify, design and implement appropriate remedies within agreed-upon time frames," she said.
In recent years, the Laureldale plant was fined about $500,000 by environmental-protection and occupational-safety agencies for failing to monitor lead emissions and other violations.
Arsenic and cadmium were found in the soil, said Mark Scott, a Berks County commissioner, who told state regulators in a 2009 letter that Exide's legacy was "one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in the history of Berks County."
Lead can damage the kidneys as well as the nervous and reproductive systems. 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.
Still, it can be nearly impossible to prove a direct link between illnesses and a particular source of toxics. Some health effects accumulate over decades and can be difficult to isolate from other harmful exposures. As a result, many people are left with suspicions about what caused their illnesses, but can't prove it.
"The people in that community are worn down and discouraged," Scott said of Laureldale, a working-class borough near Reading. "To a large measure, they've just given up."
When the plant's state air-quality permits were renewed in 2010, he and other county officials appealed to Pennsylvania's Environmental Hearing Board for tougher restrictions and better monitoring. Scott said he thought the state Department of Environmental Protection, which issued the permits, was afraid of killing jobs.
Exide once planned to spend millions on improving lead-containment systems at the plant. But after the county mounted its two-year legal challenge to its permits, the company chose to idle the facility, lay off 150 workers and shift work to other smelters, including Vernon.