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Environmental groups unhappy with lead smelter settlement

September 29, 2015

A proposed settlement of alleged Clean Air Act violations involving a Muncie company's lead smelter has upset environmental groups because the agreement doesn't require the firm to retrofit its complex with equipment that could dramatically cut lead emissions.

The federal government and Exide Technologies rejected pleas by the environmental groups, Muncie's mayor and three neighborhood associations that the company install $31 million in pollution-control equipment at its battery-recycling facility, The Star-Press of Muncie reported.

The groups wanted the company to retrofit the Muncie facility where it recycles millions of lead-acid automotive, truck and other batteries to add equipment called wet electrostatic precipitators. Such equipment, they said, has allowed an Indianapolis smelter to cut its lead emissions to a fraction of their prior level.

Indra Frank, a physician who's the Hoosier Environmental Council's health director, said the groups understand the U.S. Justice Department's legal argument explaining why the pollution controls weren't agreed to for Exide Technologies.

But she said they fear the company's smelter is tainting areas of Muncie more than a mile away with lead. Frank said lead can cause learning disabilities, seizures and other problems in children exposed to the toxic heavy metal.

"Lead is toxic to a developing child's brain even in tiny, microgram quantities, so every pound of lead pollution reduced is beneficial," she said. "Lead in air pollution settles onto the soil fairly rapidly."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in March that Exide Technologies had agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging the smelter failed to comply with national emission standards, causing it to release excess amounts of lead into the atmosphere.

Under a final consent decree filed last week in federal court in Indianapolis, the Department of Justice said, "Exide would not agree to the added features that the commenters have proposed."

Exide Technologies has instead agreed to pay $820,000 in civil penalties and spend $4 million on new pollution control equipment to settle the suit.

Randall Stone, a Justice Department attorney, wrote that during negotiations spanning more than a year, the government "had little leverage to extract an added commitment that Exide install" the more stringent pollution control equipment.

He wrote that the government ultimately settled "for the commitments they were able to negotiate," rather than "litigate for more ambitious relief that might be very difficult to obtain in this case."

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