Officials monitor scope of former Exide site cleanup

Although environmental groups and elected officials continue to voice concerns about the ongoing cleanup at a former lead recycling facility in north Baton Rouge, state Department of Environmental Quality officials say steps are being taken to make sure the cleanup is thorough.

Since the cleanup of the Exide site began last year, there have been concerns it would be limited to select areas on the property and not take into account decades of lead recycling done first by the Schuylkill Metals facility and then by Exide Technologies Baton Rouge Recycling Center at an area west of Alsen.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, organizing representative for environmental justice and community partnership programs with the Sierra Club, sent a letter to DEQ on Feb. 21 outlining a number of concerns about the cleanup, primarily focused on a need to look for legacy contamination at the site.

The letter says there is a plan on the books to clean up only a small area of nearby Baton Rouge Bayou, a plan Malek-Wiley called a “grossly inadequate response.”

The potential for pollution covering a larger area is based on previous reports and historical photographs of the area, Malek-Wiley wrote.

That larger scope look is exactly what DEQ, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is planning to do, said Sam Phillips, assistant secretary of DEQ.

The cleanup started with demolition of buildings on the site and a plan to dredge some of Baton Rouge Bayou soil located in a small area near an outflow pipe from the site.

That’s just the first priority, not the end of the testing or likely the cleanup, he said.

“We’ve got some more to do,” Phillips said. “The things I think present the most risk right now are the things we know about.”

Over the next six months, DEQ and EPA will be working on a plan to find the “unknowns” at the facility and surrounding areas, he said.

Working with EPA allows the state to use lessons learned from other places, Phillips said.

For example, are there lead facilities that were cleaned up years ago but had problems arise down the road and are there things DEQ can do now to avoid those problems in the future, Phillips said. That plan of action will be sent to the public for input, he said.

“One of the things we’ve heard is there should be public participation and I’m in total agreement,” Phillips said.

The executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Marylee Orr, said she is pleased DEQ is going to do more testing to look for potential problems because widespread pollution off the facility’s site is something that’s been found at Exide facilities in other parts of the country.

“We feel they have a legacy of leaving sites,” she said.

Although the upcoming plan of action from DEQ and EPA will be released for public input after it’s completed, both Orr and Malek-Wiley hope that a working group of community and environmental organizations could be part of the ongoing process.

Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, who has sent several letters to DEQ expressing her concerns about the Exide cleanup, said she applauds DEQ and EPA for the plan to look beyond Exide’s borders for potential contamination and is pleased that they are going to include public input.

Broome said she would like to see additional examinations of the landfills at the facility to ensure they truly contain nonhazardous materials. When similar landfills were tested at an Exide facility in Texas, she said, it was found to contain hazardous materials.

“So while I agree that the proposal by LDEQ and EPA appears to be a step in the right direction, I fear that many issues, both on-site and off, still remain unaddressed,” she wrote in an email.

Broome said she looks forward to reviewing the plan of action to see if they inform the community and address potential hazards at the site, especially in light of the fact that the company is in bankruptcy.

That bankruptcy is one of the reasons DEQ staff is doing daily inspections at the site and will continue to do so at least until dredging of contaminated soil at the small area in Baton Rouge Bayou is completed, Phillips said.

The facility started operation in the 1960s. Exide purchased it in 1999 and operated as a lead recycler where lead-containing material was sold for the manufacturing of batteries, ammunition and other uses.

“Exide continues the approved clean closure plan of its Baton Rouge lead-acid battery recycling facility in close partnership with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality,” Exide said in an email. Company officials said they wouldn’t speculate about any future cleanup that could be necessary.

Phillips said DEQ has been part of the bankruptcy proceedings from the start and has made it known to the court that although it has an idea of what the cleanup will be, that assessment could change as additional testing is done.

“There are things we know about and things we don’t know about,” Phillips said. “We get to jump in line first for the environmental piece if there are issues.”