When the California state Attorney General’s Office brought legal action in 2018 involving 29 violations of leaking hazardous waste at a car-battery recycling plant in City of Industry, nearby residents concerned about exposure and cancer risks were anticipating strong remedies.
But that’s not what happened.
A member of the public voice his concerns during a public meeting about the court settlement between Quemetco, Inc. battery-recycling company near Hacienda Heights and state agencies involving the release of cancer-causing air toxics and waste handling on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, SCNG, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
Meredith Williams, director of the DTSC, speaks during a public meeting about the court settlement between Quemetco, Inc. battery-recycling company near Hacienda Heights and North Whittier, and state agencies involving the release of cancer-causing air toxics and toxic waste handling. Williams spoke at the beginning of a two-hour meeting on the topic, including on the controversial SEPs program, at the Hacienda Heights Community Center on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
The Quemetco battery-recycling facility on 15 acres in City of Industry, located at 720 S. Seventh Ave., May 31, 2016. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)
A late December 2022 court settlement for Quemetco, Inc. approved by Attorney General Rob Bonta and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) required the company to pay $2.3 million in penalties, of which no amount was earmarked for repairs or toxic waste monitoring.
The Clean Air Coalition, made up of nearby residents of Hacienda Heights, Avocado Heights, La Puente, North Whittier and other areas, denounced the settlement as a slap on the wrist. Others said it used environmental groups to paint over the issues with a green sheen.
Byron Chan, attorney with Earth Justice, which is working with the Clean Air Coalition, said the Attorney General had the power to fine Quemetco tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars since it filed against the company. “When that lawsuit was filed it felt like DTSC was turning a page. Four years later the result of that lawsuit was nothing,” Chan said.
In defense of the settlement, DTSC said 27 of the 29 violations were fixed. But DTSC investigators reported that two major violations had not been resolved, involving hazardous waste leaking from storage areas and possibly migrating into neighborhoods, and installation of monitoring systems to detect toxic chemicals seeping into the underground aquifer — a drinking water source for at least one million residents of Los Angeles County.
“The settlement is a result of strong enforcement actions the department took,” said Meredith Williams, DTSC director, who spoke at a recent DTSC-sponsored public meeting on Feb. 8.
Quemetco said in a statement that it has invested $50 million in new pollution control equipment since 2008. “The company is proud to be the cleanest lead recycling facility in the world and it continually meets or exceeds all applicable environmental standards and requirements,” the company said.
But criticism and confusion continues to swirl around the settlement. Aside from the relatively modest fines, the focus has been on the unusual way the settlement was constructed.
DTSC used a relatively new, under-the-radar approach that environmental lawyers and residents have criticized as unusual, unhelpful, and insulting to residents living for years with exposures, or in this case, improperly managed.
Of the $2.3 million, half — about $1.15 million — went to hiring small, nonprofit organizations for non-specific educational programs, something that DTSC calls its Supplemental Environmental Projects or SEPs, used to offset defendant penalties. They also add a bonus action that goes beyond legal requirements, according to DTSC’s website.
The settlement paid $575,000 to the first SEP group, Nature For All, a Monterey Park-based organization that leads field trips to the mountains. The small group also works for access to the Angeles National Forest, and protecting local watersheds and open spaces, said Belén Bernal, executive director, in remarks made to the audience at the February meeting in Hacienda Heights.
Another $575,000 went to hire Oakland-based The California School-Based Health Alliance, which helps students improve their health and academic achievements. A local trustee with the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District said the school district was not consulted and does not know this group.
Residents and Earth Justice lawyers say the large amounts of money diverted to these organizations in lieu of traditional fines against Quemetco are excessive. On the state DTSC website, the overwhelming majority of SEPs listed involve considerably less than $500,000.
For example, in 2017, the Coalition For Clean Air in Los Angeles was awarded $35,000 to help install air pollution monitors around USC, part of a DTSC settlement using the SEP program, DTSC reported.
The grass-roots Coalition in Hacienda Heights said the large amounts of money going to the two SEPS in the Quemetco settlement could have been used to install air and water monitoring stations, or perform testing of children’s blood for lead, a compound produced by the melting of 600 tons of used lead-acid batteries per day.
Lead exposure can lead to impaired human brain function and learning disabilities, experts say.
Paying nonprofit groups more than half a million dollars each, and calling that a remedy, is an affront to a community dealing with violations from Quemetco for nearly two decades, said Angela Johnson Meszaros, managing attorney for the Community Partnerships Program at Earth Justice during an interview on March 8.
“The DTSC settlement didn’t do a thing that would directly result in reduced emissions or reduced impacts from the facility,” Johnson Meszaros said.
“In all of my 30 years doing this work, I have never seen anything like this,” she said.
When asked if it was an example of “greenwashing,” a process in which state agencies or corporations undertake small, unrelated green actions while ignoring the major environmental issues, Chan said: “I would unfortunately frame it that way.”
Johnson Meszaros said a SEP is supposed to relate to the issues in the lawsuit, in this case, hazardous waste exposure, lead exposure and also in a previous settlement, air toxics involving arsenic, a known human carcinogen. But neither the Oakland-based SEP or the local SEP has experience in the hazardous waste field or in air toxics, making the SEP-based settlement an example of the state agency simply taking cover or of a defendant avoiding harsher fines, she said.
“It was almost like they (DTSC) said: ‘We are going to pretend this is awesome and the community is going to fall for it,’” she said. “It is a striking failure on DTSC’s part to really address both Quemetco’s history of violations and the needs of the frontline communities.”
The Quemetco plant, in business since 1959, is the largest of its kind west of the Rockies and operates on 15 acres at 720 S. Seventh Ave. and employs 200 or more workers. It recycles about 10 million lead-acid regular car batteries a year as well as other lead scrap to make about 120,000 tons of reclaimed lead, according to its website.
Quemetco was forced to pay $600,000 in penalties for air pollution violations in May 2020. Among violations found at the plant was emission of lead, arsenic, and 1,3-butadiene, emitted into the air at levels that exceeded air quality rule limits, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which agreed to the settlement.
In 2004 and again in 2013, DTSC inspectors found soil with elevated lead concentration around the perimeter of Quemetco’s property. In 2018, inspectors ordered the cleanup of lead contamination in industrial facilities located near the facility. A 2016 investigation of 132 homes in Hacienda Heights, just south of Quemetco, found that 100 homes had lead levels high enough for further evaluation and might require potential cleanup.
Lead exposure limits the brain’s development and can cause kidney disease. Human exposure to lead, arsenic and 1,3-butadiene also can cause cancer.
“The policy on SEPs is that they’re supposed to have a nexus to the harms. But the choices DTSC made, I wonder if they have a proper nexus. They don’t reduce the exposures. They don’t do sampling of the soils,” Johnson Meszaros said.
DTSC says the use of SEPs benefits communities that are experiencing environmental harm and addresses environmental injustices. Using an outside nonprofit for related projects augments a settlement and improves public health, according to DTSC’s website.
Environmental lawyers who’ve brought lawsuits over environmental degradation or toxic exposures to residents but are not involved in the Quemetco case expressed varying views on the use of SEPs.
“I am in the inner circle of environmental lawyers in the state and I’ve never heard of this,” said Sabrina Venskus, an environmental land use attorney. “It is unusual.”
Geralyn Skapik, with the Skapik Law Group in Chino Hills, said a SEP can be effective if correctly applied. She remembered a case her firm settled that involved a defendant who drilled water wells but did not properly divert and treat toxic chemicals pulled out of the aquifer that killed fish in a nearby stream.
As part of the settlement, a SEP was hired to provide classes for technicians on safe and environmentally compliant ways of drilling water wells. “The classes were directly relevant to the harm that was caused,” she said, adding they prevented future toxic spills.
Johnson Meszaros said in some instances, a SEP is hired to perform actions that address the harms. But the Supplemental Environmental Projects approved by DTSC in the Quemetco case, she said, “Is not doing a thing that would directly result in reduced emissions or impacts from the facility.”
The DTSC has said the SEPs are “environmentally beneficial projects” that are part of an enforcement action. Nature For All has said it will help develop leaders “who care for and deserve access to nature and safe spaces.”
But many in the community say educating the community about the possible dangers of living near the City of Industry plant is work that has already been done.
In September 2019, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health sent nurses door-to-door to alert people of the dangers of lead exposure, and conducted voluntary blood testing for lead. The agency developed a brochure on ways residents can protect themselves from lead called “Living With Quemetco,” said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez, coordinator with the local Coalition group.
Attempts to involve nonprofit groups to educate, inform or bring awareness doesn’t sit well with the Coalition members. “It is totally greenwashing,” Overmyer-Velazquez said. “They (DTSC) comes off looking good by funding these nonprofits.”
Susan Phillips, professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability, has led efforts to stop or slow down development of warehouses in the Inland Empire on grounds that they add to air pollution and truck traffic.
Phillips said fighting cities, developers and state environmental agencies is often a losing battle. “All the settlements we’ve had don’t come close to mitigation for the project. They just shave the edges off it. It is disheartening for community members.”
But after more than two years of efforts, she has some advice for those living near Quemetco. “Our adage is fighting is winning. It is about continuing the fight.”