California battery recycler ordered to expand soil sampling

California battery recycler ordered to expand soil sampling

Facility's application to renew its hazardous waste permit is pending.

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February 20, 2019

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday agreed to send a letter urging state and regional environmental agencies to oppose the expansion of a lead-acid battery recycling and smelting plant in Industry, California.

Quemetco operates on 13 acres and recycles about 10 million used lead-based car batteries per year to produce 120,000 tons of recycled lead for new products, according to its website.

Quemetco has submitted a request to California's Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) and the South Coast Air Quality Management District for a new permit that would increase operations to 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an additional 10 years.

In December, DTSC ordered Quemetco to conduct additional lead sampling in residential areas around its facility and to remove contaminated soil in the industrial areas outside the facility, where sampling found high levels of lead. New DTSC modeling and analysis show that it is possible the plant’s historical operations may have deposited lead up to 1.6 miles away from the facility. 

Earlier sampling in the industrial and commercial areas outside the plant found lead levels in soil exceeding 1,000 parts per million, which is considered hazardous waste. DTSC says it ordered Quemetco to clean up the sites along public roads in November. Residential properties in the quarter-mile area around the facility also had lead levels ranging from 80 parts per million to 348 parts per million, according to the department.

If Quemetco’s operations deposited lead in the area, the department says it likely pre-dates 2008, when Quemetco was required by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to install an advanced air pollution control system to reduce emissions of lead and other toxic compounds.

In October, the attorney general’s office filed a civil complaint against the plant, citing 29 alleged violations of the California Hazardous Waste Control Law. The lawsuit claims Quemetco failed to maintain an underground leak-detection system in a building that held lead and a required groundwater monitoring system.

Los Angeles Times reported in 2017 Quemetco had 111 workers with lead levels that could cause miscarriage or heart disease. The Department of Public Health has been recording elevated levels among plant employees for decades, according to the article. California is among several states that don't use a federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) standard called the National Emphasis Program on Lead, which requires any case involving a single worker with a blood level at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter to be handled by inspection.

If the new lead samplings find contamination that pose “immediate threat” to people or the environment, DTSC says it will “take action to ensure it is cleaned up.”

Quemetco has operated the battery recycling facility since 1959. The company has an application pending with DTSC to renew its hazardous waste permit. The DTSC says it will make a decision in 2020.