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Quemetco will begin testing soil for lead in early summer

Quemetco in the City of Industry recycles 600 tons of lead from batteries each day. The battery recycler is pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Quemetco in the City of Industry recycles 600 tons of lead from batteries each day.

After three years of negotiating with state officials, the remaining lead battery recycler in Los Angeles County will soon begin testing soil for lead and other contaminants around its plant in the City of Industry, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Starting in early summer, Quemetco, Inc. will sample soil within a quarter-mile of its facility. That will cover more than 230 residential properties, more than 25 commercial/industrial sites and several public areas, including storm drains and the bottoms of San Jose and Puente Creeks, according to the final workplan.

If high lead levels are found and tied to the company, then the testing will be expanded up to a mile radius from the plant, an area that could include up to 1,000 homes, according to the state.

"What DTSC cares about is any lead that is contaminating the soil,"  said Dot Lofstrom, the division chief at Toxic Substances Control who is overseeing the Quemetco process.  "They have to go as far as they need to go until they have demonstrated to DTSC satisfaction that there is no longer lead associated with Quemetco."

So far only the soil sampling plan has been worked out. Quemetco is expected to submit the implementation plan for the testing to Toxic Substances Control by Friday.

The goal of the sampling is to identify residential properties with lead levels higher than 80 parts per million and commercial sites with levels above 320 ppm.

If Quemetco finds high levels of lead during the soil sampling the state will order a cleanup, which will require the development of a plan for that process, Lofstrom said.

The company is paying for the soil sampling and will fund any necessary cleanup, according to the state.

One issue that remains unresolved is determining the source of any contamination. Quemetco has asked the state for more time to create a new "fingerprinting" process – which will determine where the lead originated. The company was supposed to submit a plan for it in January but requested more time. The protocol is now due Friday.

Lofstrom said it doesn’t really matter to the state if the company comes up with a fingerprinting plan, because unless it can prove it is not responsible for the lead, any cleanup will be its responsibility. 

Toxic Substances Control has invited the public to a community meeting on April 27 for an update on the sampling and testing plans.

This is the latest development in a decades long battle between Quemetco and the state agency.

Quemetco is the second lead battery recycler in the region to be ordered to test soil for lead. Exide, in Vernon, was shuttered by the state in 2013. Regulators are testing and cleaning up a 1.7 mile radius around the plant that could involve up to 10,000 homes.

In the City of Industry, the state first determined 25 years ago that there is lead in the neighborhoods around the plant. But it did not take any action at that time.  

Over the years, the Toxic Substances Control penalized the company for not disposing of waste properly and required it to clean up soil on the perimeter of the plant. Quemetco has also been cited by the Air Quality Management District and Los Angeles County in the past.

In 2008, Quemetco installed equipment to drastically reduce its lead emissions. 

In 2012, Toxic Substances Control again found high levels of lead around the plant and ordered the company to submit a plan to deal with it.

Quemetco and the state finally reached agreement last month on how to proceed in assessing what the state agency considers legacy pollution, spewed between the 1960s and the mid-2000s.