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Toxic lead pollution in L.A.: Two battery recyclers beg to differ

November 9, 2010 |  5:38 pm

Playground
Southern California air pollution officials have moved to curb toxic emissions from two lead acid battery recycling plants in Los Angeles County. The regulations are designed to meet the 2008 federal limits on airborne lead pollution, the first new lead limits in three decades.

But Shankar B. Prasad, a physician with the Sacramento-based Coalition for Clean Air, said the South Coast Air Quality Management District "missed a great opportunity to enforce a more health-protective limit on lead emissions--even when the technology is readily available."

Few poisons are as damaging to the brain as airborne lead particles. Lead attacks the nervous and reproductive system, causes cognitive and behavioral changes and increases the risk of cancer. Children are especially vulnerable, and can suffer learning disabilities and IQ deficits, as lead accumulates in their bodies.

The AQMD rule requires the region's two battery recyclers, Exide Technologies in Vernon and Quemetco Inc. in the City of Industry, to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new outdoor air quality standard for lead of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter beginning in January 2012.

In letters to South Coast officials this fall, Quemetco's Michael R. Buckantz, manager for environmental technical support, advocated for a stricter local standard and stepped-up monitoring, saying that his company had already spent $18 million to install state-of-the-art emission controls. "Unlike many other air toxics, lead persists and accumulates in the environment for long periods of time," he wrote. "It makes sense to limit lead emissions to the lowest possible levels."

Exide, which has long been the target of environmental activists in the City of Commerce, has not made a similar investment and contended that the equipment installed at Quemetco would not function at its facility. Plant manager Corey Vodvarka told South Coast officials that using the new technology would "threaten the economic viability of the Exide Vernon, CA. recycling facility and Exide would have to consider the alternative of expanding operations at its other recycling facilities outside of California."

AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said, "Our staff analysis found that Exide did not need the costly air pollution controls that Quemetco had installed to meet the federal lead standard." Under the new regulation, the plants would be forced to reduce direct emissions, as well as lead dust at their facilities, by installing new equipment, monitoring the air and increasing public notices.

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Children are especially vulnerable to toxic lead emissions, which accumulate in their bodies and are linked to learning disabilities. Lead particles travel through the air and settle in the dirt of playgrounds, similar to this one in a Los Angeles park. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

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