A factory called Quemetco in the City of Industry has violated pollution laws for nearly eight years, but in spite of a recent settlement with state regulators, nearby residents in Hacienda Heights believe the state is not doing enough to protect them.
“I don't think there's anything radical about us that live in these communities asking for clean air, clean water, and clean soil for our kids to play in,” says Sam Vásquez, who leads community activism against Quemetco and uses his mother’s maiden name to maintain privacy.
Quemetco is a secondary lead smelter, which means they recycle the lead in things like old car batteries so it can be reused. The process releases lead into the atmosphere, which then sinks into the soil. It’s a busy place – the factory does 10 million used car batteries every year.
Years of violations
The problems began in 2015, when state officials first accused Quemetco of 27 pollution violations. Those included “a nonfunctioning leak detection system, they failed to construct an adequate groundwater monitoring system, and they failed to minimize possible hazardous waste releases into the environment,” says Director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control Meredith Williams.
Quemetco’s own soil sampling in 2016 and 2017 revealed that a third of nearby homes had more lead in the soil than is allowable under California law. Public health agencies say there is no safe level of exposure to lead.
In the meantime, when residents get sick, they often blame Quemetco.
“My mother, she did get cancer, a rare cancer. I can't say it's from that place,” says Hacienda Heights resident Nick Buchheit. “Also, I had three cats that came up with tumors on their body, which I'm also suspecting is from Quemetco.”
Buchheit is raising his family in his childhood home, less than a mile from the plant. His neighbor just got diagnosed with cancer, too. The smoke coming from the facility is visible from his backyard. It smells faintly like drying paint.
“I'm very infuriated, of course. We live right next to it,” he says. “I have my nieces and nephews, my own daughter, and they’ve got to deal with that stuff, too.”
He says every year he gets a pamphlet in the mail reminding him of his increased cancer risk for living so close to the smelter, and he’d leave if he could afford it.
Air quality officials said in 2016 that thousands of people living near Quemetco are at increased cancer risk, but in a statement provided to KCRW, the company said their own assessments have not found any significant risks to living near or working at the facility. The company also cited a cancer cluster study that did not find a cluster surrounding Quemetco. In a fact sheet, they deny some of the pollution accusations, and say they’re proud to be the cleanest secondary lead smelter in the world.
The state settles with the company
Williams says California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) gave the company three years to fix their problems.
“Quemetco’s unresponsiveness was a significant contributing factor to the length of time it took to resolve these issues,” she says. “So DTSC was forced to file a civil complaint in 2018, which, in the end, resulted in the recent settlement agreement that was announced last December.”
The settlement requires Quemetco to fix the 27 pollution violations and so far, the state says they’ve taken care of 25 of them. They’re allowed to operate while they fix the remaining two. Quemetco also has to pay $2.3 million in penalties.
This agreement has not satisfied nearby residents, which they made clear at a community meeting last week. For more than two hours, residents demanded explanations from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, and at one point, unsatisfied with the agency’s answers, chanted “shut them down.”
Residents are also angry they didn’t learn about the settlement until after the process ended.
“Why were we not part of the settlement? They should have consulted with us, because it is our lives that are being affected by this,” says Adriana Quinones, who has lived in Hacienda Heights for 23 years. Her sister has cancer, and her nephew died of a rare cancer at 35 despite no family history.
Also, the fine struck many of them as way too low.
“Two point three million is not sufficient for the number of people that have died, people that have health issues. It's a slap on the face,” she says.
As part of the settlement, the state also reduced the severity of some of the violations they’d accused Quemetco of committing. That paves the way for Quemetco to move forward with its plan to expand its operations by 25%.
Sam Vásquez sees it as an environmental injustice. His neighborhood of Avocado Heights and other surrounding communities are majority Latino. “You don't see a battery smelter in Beverly Hills. You don't see one in Santa Monica. There's a reason for that. So what is it that's different about our community?” he asks. “The politicians are silent, refuse to talk about this issue, refuse to even address this issue. I think that that says a lot about them. And it says a lot about what they think of our community.”
Vasquez and other residents want the state to require Quemetco to stop the expansion, remove the facility, and clean up historic contamination, says
Angela Johnson Meszaros, who represents residents impacted by Quemetco as managing attorney at Earthjustice.
“If there was ever a time when it was appropriate to have a secondary lead smelter in Los Angeles County, that time has long since passed,” she says.
But right now, there’s no path to meeting any of those demands. Vasquez says he’s focused on raising awareness, canvassing, putting videos of the factory on social media and creating public pressure to meet their demands.
He says he won’t leave, because the community is worth fighting for. “People really love their community, you know?” he says. “In spite of the environmental impacts, I wouldn't live anywhere else.”