(This piece was originally published on September 29, 2015 in The Star Press.)
MUNCIE — “The federal government and Exide Technologies have rejected pleas from the mayor, environmental/health groups and three neighborhood associations to install $31 million in pollution-control equipment at the company’s battery recycling facility.
Physician Indra Frank, health director at the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the coalition understands the U.S. Department of Justice’s legal argument but remains disappointed.
“Lead is toxic to a developing child’s brain even in tiny, microgram quantities, so every pound of lead pollution reduced is beneficial,” she told The Star Press. “Lead in air pollution settles onto the soil fairly rapidly. Lead smelters elsewhere have contaminated neighboring properties with lead more than a mile away, and the same could be happening in Muncie.”
Exide, which recycles millions of lead-acid automotive, truck and other batteries in Muncie, agreed to pay $820,000 in civil penalties and spend $4 million on new pollution control equipment to settle a federal lawsuit accusing the company of once again violating the Clean Air Act.
The coalition says a proposed consent decree doesn’t require Exide to retrofit the facility with the best available control technology — wet electrostatic precipitators (WESP) — to dramatically reduce airborne emissions of lead and other pollutants from smokestacks.
Randall Stone, a justice department attorney, responded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency three years ago rejected a general mandate to require secondary lead smelters throughout the United States to install WESP, citing “the high cost and limited incremental benefits.”
In a brief filed in federal court in Indianapolis, Stone noted the lawsuit against Exide-Muncie did not allege violations of stack lead emissions; it accused Exide of violating regulations governing “uncontrolled fugitive emissions” that leak or escape from the building through uncontrolled exhaust points. Those regulations require maintaining the building under “continuous negative pressure,” accomplished by ventilating the building so that indoor air is constantly drawn through hoods, duct work and particle capture equipment before it is exhausted through stacks.
The lawsuit also accused Exide of sometimes failing to maintain adequate flue gas temperatures to destroy gaseous hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans that can be formed from plastics and impurities burned off during the lead smelting process.
The consent decree requires Exide to correct that problem by installing a new “afterburner” to increase the temperature of the flue gas. The proposed settlement also requires Exide to improve its record-keeping system.
During negotiations lasting more than a year, the government “had little leverage to extract an added commitment that Exide install costly WESP equipment,” Stone wrote. “In short, Exide refused to make that commitment as part of these settlement negotiations. The plaintiffs (the federal government and the state of Indiana) ultimately elected to settle for the commitments they were able to negotiate rather than litigate for more ambitious relief that might be very difficult to obtain in this case.”
It’s typical in a consent decree that no party gets everything it wants, Stone reported. He called the settlement fair, reasonable, consistent with the goals of the Clean Air Act and a “likely … vehicle for cleansing the environment.”
The justice department also rejected the coalition’s request to strengthen the consent decree by requiring Exide to implement perimeter “fence-line monitoring” of outdoor air around the facility, not just the stacks. Stone noted that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management operates an outdoor air monitor adjacent to Exide. Measurements there have been well below federal standards since at least early 2012.
“Exide cannot comment on pending judicial proceedings,” company spokeswoman Kristin Wohlleben told The Star Press on Monday.
Similar Exide facilities in Los Angeles and Frisco, Texas, have contaminated nearby communities with lead, leading to cleanups costing hundreds of millions of dollars and toxic tort claims exceeding $3 billion.
Last year, an Exide consultant found lead in the ground water below the Muncie facility at seven times the concentrations for safe drinking water, as well as lead in the soil at levels 16 times the standard for industrial sites.
Two months ago, Wohlleben told The Star Press, “Since Exide Technologies announced the closure of its Los Angeles, Calif., recycling facility in March of 2015, the company already has safely transported some inventory from Vernon to the Muncie facility for recycling … Currently, the company is in the process of completing the shipment of additional Vernon inventory, a portion of which will be sent to Muncie. Exide invests in battery recycling because it is good for the environment and good for business. Exide is proud to be a responsible part of the environmental and business accomplishment of the recycling of lead-acid batteries.”