Smelters Expose Communities to Toxic Levels of Lead

Environmental groups intervene to help defend public health rules from industry attack


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5221


Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics, (661) 510-3412


Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Natural Resources Defense Council, (415) 875-6100


Kathleen Logan-Smith, Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation, (314) 727-0600

Yesterday, five environmental groups—Sierra Club, California Communities Against Toxics, Frisco Unleaded, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, filed an intervention to defend and strengthen Environmental Protection Agency rules requiring secondary lead smelters to clean up toxic air pollution.

Secondary lead smelters, often known as battery recyclers, extract and process lead from scrap material and old batteries, exposing communities to lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants. Many smelters continue to use outdated technology and pump thousands of pounds of lead a year into neighboring communities. At the same time, simple enclosure of smelter facilities and available air pollution control equipment, such as wet electrostatic precipitators and high efficiency filters, can drastically reduce lead pollution and prevent harm to neighboring children.

“Because the science shows that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, smelters must use existing technology to cut their emissions of lead and other toxic air pollution,” said Emma Cheuse, attorney with Earthjustice. “It is essential for the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the air for the people most affected, including children and local residents living near lead smelters who are disproportionately people of color and people living below the poverty line.”

The environmental groups intend to oppose industry groups’ efforts to weaken the final rule and also filed their own legal challenge to try to ensure that affected communities get the full health protection they need. Lead is a persistent pollutant that builds up in the environment and is particularly dangerous for children. Exposure to lead in the air and other environmental sources can cause neurological harm to brain function and learning disabilities in children, and also is associated with impairment of the cardiovascular, reproductive, kidney, and immune system for adults.

“We do not have to sacrifice the environment and take on more health risks to preserve or increase jobs, because protection for clean air is a good investment in our health and our economy,” said Michael Mullen, member of the Sierra Club in Troy, Ala. “All of us who live in communities where there are secondary lead smelters need to make sure they install the best available technology to protect our health and our environment from lead pollution.”

“We have evidence that facilities can dramatically reduce their pollution by totally enclosing their operations and using modern air pollution controls,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Children especially need protection from lead pollution in their earliest years, when exposure is quite dangerous. It is a matter of basic fairness that all Americans must have the best protection from toxic air pollution available, and that’s why it’s so vital for the EPA to have strong national air standards.”

“Pollution controls are available and already in use at some facilities,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There’s no excuse for this industry to keep poisoning communities. The EPA needs to ensure that all children have the opportunity to grow up safe and healthy by limiting lead pollution.”

“Lead is highly toxic and causes irreversible damage to the brains of young children,” said Shiby Mathew, co-chair of Frisco Unleaded. “Children are particularly vulnerable to lead pollution because normal play activities bring them in greater contact with lead contamination and their nervous systems are still developing.”

“Of 16 total facilities in the nation, two are in Missouri, with one pumping over 13 thousand pounds of lead into our air annually, or more than 100 times the amount of lead emitted by a source in California,” said Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “Our children and our environment should not be the dumping grounds for this toxic air pollution. We deserve the same equal protection from smelters achieved in other states, and that’s why we need stronger national air standards now.”

The EPA issued the revised rule as a result of a settlement Sierra Club and Earthjustice reached with the EPA in 2010 requiring the EPA to review and revise regulations for toxic air pollution from over two dozen major industrial sources, including lead smelters. This settlement set deadlines for the EPA to engage in rulemaking required by the Clean Air Act, but it did not address the substance of the final rule. The final rule that the EPA issued represents an improvement over the prior standards, but does not lower emissions of lead to the extent necessary to provide an “ample margin of safety to protect public health” as the Clean Air Act requires, and does not match the lead reductions achieved by the best-performing sources in the industry. The groups also filed a petition for reconsideration to urge the EPA to engage in further rulemaking to strengthen the final rule.

This recent legal action is being taken amid a current push from the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee and the Center for Disease Control Advisory Committee Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention to strengthen federal measures to lessen children’s exposure to lead based on the best available current science.

In a letter dated March 26, CHPAC wrote to Administrator Lisa Jackson noting that the EPA itself has recognized that there is “no ‘safe’ level of exposure” to lead. The EPA has banned lead in gasoline but exposure continues to occur from lead smelting, coal burning, older plumbing fixtures, paint in buildings, and aviation fuel, among other sources. In a January 4 report, the CDC Committee recommended revising the way lead exposure is treated because of “a growing body of scientific literature that adverse health effects may arise from blood lead levels lower than 10 μg/dL” and emphasized “the need to prevent children from being exposed to lead before their blood lead levels can become elevated.”

There are currently 15 secondary lead smelters located in Pennsylvania, Florida, Minnesota, California, Indiana, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Another new facility is scheduled to open this year in South Carolina.

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