Hundreds of communities are threatened by airborne chemicals. In suburbs of Reading, Pa., citizens complain about unresponsive regulators. Emma Schwartz/iWatch News
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READING, Pa. — From his 13th-floor office in the Berks County Services Center, Commissioner Mark Scott fields constituent complaints about suffocating odors from an old battery recycling plant in the working-class borough of Laureldale, a northern suburb of this city.

Scott, a Republican, reacts to these calls in a way that might seem blasphemous to GOP hard-liners. As he sees it, regulators aren’t doing enough. Just listen, he says, to the messages saved on his office voicemail:

“Exide stinks so horrible,” says a woman. “I don’t know — it smells like somebody died.”

“Exide is very, very strong this morning,” says a man. “I went out at 7 o’clock with the dog, and it almost knocked me off my feet.”

The odors may be the least of their worries. Some 7,000 people live within a one-mile radius of the Exide Technologies plant, where car batteries are broken apart so the lead inside can be melted down and reused. For decades, Exide and the plant’s previous owners showered the area with lead, a metal that even at low levels can impair brain function and development, especially in infants and young children. The plant also discharged arsenic, which studies have shown can cause cancer.

A small park to the northeast of Exide is closed to the public so that lead-contaminated soil can be scooped away and replaced. A convent is perched on a hill to the west. A newish subdivision is on the opposite hilltop.

Here, as in other places from California to Maine, pollution persists with seemingly little action from regulators long aware of complaints and violations. Laureldale is among hundreds of communities threatened by airborne chemicals that a Democratic Congress and a Republican president agreed more than two decades ago needed to be controlled. The Exide plant is among nearly 400 facilities on an internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “watch list,” designed to track potential Clean Air Act violators that have faced no formal enforcement action for months if not years.

When Exide’s air permit — in effect, its license to pollute — came up for renewal in 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection got an earful from people in Berks County. In a letter to the agency on Nov. 17 of that year, Scott, who chairs the county’s Office of the Commissioners, wrote, “The operating legacy of Exide Technologies constitutes one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in the history of Berks County.”

Scott noted that, in addition to the lead problem, soil testing on properties near the plant in the 1980s had revealed “disturbingly high levels” of arsenic and another carcinogen, cadmium. He asked the state to issue a permit that would “once and finally protect public health.”

In September 2010, Exide got its permit. County officials were unhappy with the level of pollution control required by the permit and decided to challenge it before the state’s Environmental Hearing Board.

“We think it’s a step in the wrong direction,” Scott said in a recent interview in his office. “We believe that better technology can be employed and that the emissions can be more drastically reduced.”

Exide’s new permit calls for no lead monitoring beyond what’s already required under the Clean Air Act: sampling once every six days by two, state-operated monitoring devices outside the plant. In a legal filing, the county calls this “insufficient based on [the plant’s] operational history and the close proximity to the surrounding residential neighborhood.” In years past, under an agreement between Exide and the state, lead samples were collected as often as every other day by a network of five, company-run monitors, as well as once every six days by a state device.

Gavin Biebuyck, an environmental consultant in Reading who has worked for both industry and Berks County, said the plant’s lead emissions may be three to four times higher than what’s allowed under the current — very strict — federal lead standard, which took effect three years ago.

“We have a tighter lead standard and much less monitoring than was done previously,” he said. “You’re not really capturing much in the way of lead impacts.”

Company says it accurately reports emissions

Biebuyck calculated in 2009 that Exide had underreported its emissions “on the order of 50 percent” over at least a 10-year period (he compared what the company told the state with what air monitors detected). The discrepancy, he suspects, was due largely to “fugitive” emissions — fine lead dust that came not from the plant’s main stack but from furnaces or other process equipment, or was stirred up on roads by truck traffic.

The amount of pollution coming from the plant isn’t surprising, Biebuyck said, given that it and other so-called secondary lead smelters each can legally emit several tons of lead per year. “Some of that deposits onto surrounding properties and some of it doesn’t,” he said. After prodding by the courts, the EPA proposed tougher rules for these operations, but it could be years before they take effect.

The EPA forced the company to spend upwards of $10 million to remove and replace lead-tainted soil on 227 residential properties, a 10-year process that ended in September. Exide is in the final stages of cleaning up Bernhart Park, which the EPA expects to reopen next spring.

Exide officials declined to be interviewed for this article. In a written statement to the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, the company said it has accurately reported lead emissions from the plant and has made “continuous improvements” to reduce those emissions. “Exide is also planning on upgrading and adding filtration equipment to further reduce lead stack and fugitive emissions from the facility,” the company wrote.

Of the contaminated land around the plant, Exide wrote, “As with many facilities around the country that have been in operation for many, many years and prior to the more stringent standards that have been put in place, it is feasible to assume that historic air emissions could have had some impact on properties within the immediate vicinity of our facility.”

As for worries about arsenic, Exide wrote, “EPA recognizes that arsenic is emitted from all secondary lead smelters and that by controlling lead emissions, a smelter will also control arsenic emissions.”

Exide’s reassurances aside, as of September the Laureldale plant remained on the EPA’s Clean Air Act watch list.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection would not comment on Exide, citing the county’s permit appeal.

‘Show some concern for the residents!’

The EPA has designated 16 parts of the country as lead “non-attainment areas,” meaning that lead emissions exceed the 2008 limit. Exide plants are the main or only sources of lead in five of the 16 areas: Laureldale; Vernon, Calif.; Bristol, Tenn.; Muncie, Ind.; and Frisco, Texas.

The state of Pennsylvania has fined Exide $436,000 over the past 10 years for air pollution violations at its Laureldale plant. More than half this amount — $225,000 — was levied in February 2010, for what the state described as Exide’s failure to operate lead detectors “for extended periods of time” between 2006 and 2009. Such detectors help identify when lead is released into the air.

In addition to the air penalties, the company paid $120,000 in June 2010 for what the state called “recurring hazardous waste management violations,” some involving accumulations of lead dust. Rachel Diamond, the Department of Environmental Protection’s south-central regional director, said in a prepared statement at the time that while Exide had made progress on odors and lead emissions, “it must continue to refine and improve its operational procedures to correct any current violations and prevent any future infractions.”

The company declined to comment on the penalties.

While Exide was racking up fines, state officials were drafting its new permit, which would establish how much pollution the plant could release into the densely populated neighborhoods around it. Some residents of those neighborhoods sent letters to the Department of Environmental Protection, begging it to be tough.

Richard Herzog: “Since Exide Corp. took this plant over [in 1987], some days it is just unbearable. It burns your throat and makes your eyes water…Since I’ve lived here for 35 years I saw many people in this neighborhood decease[d] from cancer ailments. . …. I know that there is no way you can pinpoint the blame on these cancer deaths to the pollution at Exide, but I have to say it makes you think just what harm is this pollution doing to are [sic][our] bodies.”

Larry Homan: “One evening this past summer [2009] my wife and I were awakened by a very, very strong acid smell and both of us had painful headaches, [got] sick to our stomachs and . . . vomited …… It seems that this happens only at night and very seldom or almost never during the day. …. . Please correct the problem now.”

Mr. and Mrs. Rudy Pfennig: “Show some concern for the residents! You don’t have this in your neighborhood or in your homes. Why should we?”

Such pleas notwithstanding, on Sept. 23, 2010, two state air-quality officials recommended approval of the permit. In a statement, regional director Diamond said, “With past air quality violations corrected and updated requirements now in place in the new operating permit, Exide is now in a position to be a better neighbor.”

George Honsberger, a 73-year-old Reading native who has lived a quarter-mile from the plant for the past five years, doesn’t buy it. Honsberger has lost faith in state regulators and, like Larry Homan, is convinced that Exide has engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse, unleashing its most putrid odors early in the morning and on weekends and holidays to avoid detection by the authorities.

Honsberger — the dog-walker on Commissioner Scott’s office voicemail — said he has little patience for air-quality inspectors who claim they must smell the odors themselves before they can discipline Exide. Exasperated, he asked one young man, “Do you have to have gauges up your nose or something? I said, ‘I don’t work for you people. You do your job. One of your initials stands for protection. Protect me.’”

Scott said that he and his executive assistant, Michelle Kircher, are hearing fewer complaints about Exide. He attributes this less to anything the company has done than to sheer fatigue on the part of the onetime callers.

“The people who have complained over the past number of years have been so disenchanted by the [state] response that they have, for want of a better term, given up,” Scott said.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...