Quemetco’s Lead Legacy: A Cycle of Injustice and Contamination in Southern California
California’s legislators and regulators have the opportunity and obligation to fulfill their oversight duties and hold Quemetco accountable for its historic and ongoing harm to people and the environment.
A new report details how Quemetco — the last remaining secondary lead smelter in California — has exploited a failed regulatory structure that does little to protect people and the environment. The report documents the resulting and devastating impacts of hazardous operations at Quemetco that poison the air, soil, water, and surrounding communities.
California’s legislators and regulators must stand with community members and fight to end the cycle of failure.
The Harms of Secondary Lead Smelters The lead smelting industry is a remnant of a time when people ignored the impacts of lead on human health and the environment. The process of secondary lead smelting results in the release of harmful compounds, such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium, throughout each step of the process, from crushing the batteries to smelting and refining. There is no safe level of exposure to lead.
Quemetco is currently seeking approval from the South Coast Air Quality Management District to expand its operations. Quemetco is also in the midst of the permit renewal process for its long-expired hazardous waste permit with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, a process that has been delayed because of Quemetco’s ongoing failure to provide all of the information necessary to process the permit renewal application.
Community members are opposed to Quemetco’s proposal to increase its operations and instead, demand a focus on advancing the transition that is already taking place away from the use of lead-acid batteries and secondary lead smelters and towards a cleaner future with alternative technologies.
For years, residents have spoken out at meetings and provided testimony about the impacts of Quemetco on their lives.
Richard Kamimura, in 2018:
“When they choose a pound of lead over a pound of human life, something is wrong. … That air, that emission is poisoning our children 20 hours a day, six days a week, and you want to allow it 7/24, all the time. What do you tell your children, ‘You don’t breathe. That’s the only way we can protect you?’”
Beatriz Ricarti, in 2018:
“My son died of cancer. I have cancer. … I wonder if at least one of you live in the neighborhood, then you would know how it feels that nobody is paying attention at what we’re feeling, what we are going through.”
We call on California’s legislative and regulatory bodies to fulfill their oversight duties and hold Quemetco accountable for its historic and ongoing harm to people and the environment.
- Legislative Recommendations
- Update the financial assurance provisions to ensure that companies provide enough money to cover the costs of fully cleaning up their contamination.
- Require the Department of Toxic Substances Control to update its regulations regarding the agency’s annual assessment of a facility’s violations. Such assessments must result in meaningful consequences for facilities like Quemetco that have a history of violations and non-compliance.
- South Coast Air Quality Management District Recommendation
- Deny Quemetco’s currently pending expansion request.
- Department of Toxic Substances Control Recommendations
- Deny Quemetco’s application to renew its hazardous waste permit.
- Establish a process and timeline to shut Quemetco down and develop a comprehensive clean-up plan.
- Lead Is Not The Only Toxic Compound
- Harm to Workers and Their Families From Secondary Lead Smelter Operations
- Financial Assurance
- Legacy of Contamination
- Case Study: RSR Corporation, West Dallas, Texas
- Case Study: RSR Corporation, Middletown, New York
This report was written by Lisa Fuhrmann, Sr. Research & Policy Analyst, with input and assistance from Byron Chan, Senior Associate Attorney; Lupe Ruelas, Litigation Assistant; Erica Martinez, Policy Advocate; and Angela Johnson Meszaros, Managing Attorney, with Earthjustice’s Community Partnerships Program.
This report was written in partnership with the Clean Air Coalition of North Whittier & Avocado Heights.
Community Partnerships Program
Earthjustice’s Community Partnerships Program provides legal and advocacy resources to local leaders demanding a safe, just, and healthy environment in which their communities can thrive — no matter how long the fight. Learn more.