Lead smelters provide a crucial service, but what of the health effects?
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There used to be hundreds of smelters in the U.S. that recycled the lead in old car batteries.
One of the few remaining is Quemetco, located in a suburb east of Los Angeles. It’s not only still operating, it even has plans to expand. When residents near the Quemetco facility get sick, they sometimes blame the lead smelter.
“My mother, she did get cancer, a rare cancer. I can’t say it’s from that place, but she did end up passing away from it,” said Nick Buchheit, who lives in his childhood home less than a mile from the plant.
The smoke from the smelter is visible from Buchheit’s backyard. Three of his cats developed tumors and died.
It’s impossible to say whether Quemetco’s operations made them sick. But the facility is legally required, every year, to mail a pamphlet reminding Buchheit of his increased cancer risk living nearby.
He said can’t afford to move away. “I have my nieces and nephews, my own daughter, and they gotta deal with that stuff too.”
Quemetco declined to provide an interview, but the company’s website says it has not found significant risks to living near its smelter. The site says its safety and health protection records lead the industry.
California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control gave the company several years to comply with emissions standards.
“Quemetco’s unresponsiveness was a significant contributing factor to the length of time it took to resolve these issues,” said the agency’s director, Meredith Williams.
Quemetco’s own 2017 report showed that a third of nearby homes had illegally high levels of lead in soil. The state reached a settlement over its 27 emissions violations, allowing Quemetco to operate while it fixes the last of them.
Earthjustice Attorney Angela Johnson Meszaros represents clients living near the smelter. She said the smelter is too close to populated communities, and her clients hope it will either shut down or move to an area with fewer people.
“If there was ever a time when it was appropriate to have a secondary lead smelter in Los Angeles County,” she said, “that time has long since passed.”
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