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County Establishes Task Force to Battle Industrial Pollution

A task force was created to close the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon. Some say the emissions from this plant travel as far as South Pasadena.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of a task force aimed at closing a battery recycling plant in Vernon and identifying other industrial health threats on Tuesday.

The task force is "an important step in reducing toxic risk in our most vulnerable communities," Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's top health official, told the board.

State agencies enforce some of the strictest pollution regulations in the country, Fielding said, but argued that earlier, local intervention is needed.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who championed the task force, said state regulatory agencies were not doing enough.

"We've gone to different agencies and ask that they close them down," Molina said, referring to the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon. "All they do is ... give them another opportunity to clean up and allow them to make excuses."

The facility, which recycles 23,000 to 41,000 batteries daily, has been cited for lead and arsenic pollution and was temporarily closed in April. The South Coast Air Quality Management District imposed stricter emissions guidelines targeting the plant in January.

John Hogarth, manager of Exide's plant, told the board that the AQMD reported a 95 percent reduction in arsenic emissions based on operational improvements made by the company.

Hogarth, who lives in Vernon, said Exide had spent $20 million on upgrades and was continuing to make changes, calling residents' health "a top priority."

But yesterday state officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control announced that elevated levels of lead was found in soil taken from 39 residential lots near the plant and called for expanded testing.

Authorities said there did not appear to be an immediate severe risk to adults in the area, but recommended that parents keep children from playing in the dirt and thoroughly wash children's hands when they come inside.

The idea that children shouldn't play outside frustrated residents and community leaders who spoke before the board today. Others said the risk extends beyond Vernon, with emissions traveling as far as South Pasadena.

The firm at 2700 S. Indiana St. is one of only two lead-acid battery recycling plants west of the Rockies and has been operating since 1922. Hogarth called the plant's lead recycling "a vital function."

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the task force would investigate other potentially toxic hazards.

"A legacy of poor land use planning has led to a variety of industrial uses, ranging from urban oil fields to scrap metal recyclers, that operate close to residential communities," Ridley-Thomas said. "Some facilities blatantly exceed regulatory standards. Some create a legitimate public nuisance."

Some facilities that play by the rules still generate fear among residents, Ridley-Thomas said. He called for public outreach and education to combat misinformation as part of the task force's work.

Molina said she was hoping that the state might ultimately give the county the authority to close businesses that pose a health threat.

"The health of our communities cannot wait," Molina said.

The Department of Public Health will lead the task force, which was directed to report back in 90 days with recommendations on ways to close the Exide plant. The group also was asked to identify the communities most at risk from various industrial hazards.

The board's vote to establish the task force was unanimous.

—City News Service

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