The Trouble with Exide Technologies 

Lead contamination in Frankfort could be relived in Muncie

click to enlarge A view of where the Exide battery plant once stood in Frankfort, Indiana. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL RHEINHEIMER
  • A view of where the Exide battery plant once stood in Frankfort, Indiana.
  • Photo by Michael Rheinheimer

Across the street and to the west of a vacant lot in Frankfort is a small set of houses. This little neighborhood has the dubious honor of serving as an example of what can happen when a corporation leaves a mess in its wake.

Last fall, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management began testing the neighborhood's ground and water. They found increased concentrations of leads in some yards and increased concentrations of chlorinated solvents in the ground water. IDEM referred the site to the EPA, which then performed its own tests.

The agency announced on its cleanup website that it would be testing the soil at no cost to homeowners, as long as they scheduled to have their yards tested by Oct. 15. The EPA promised to remove and replace any contaminated soil at no cost to the homeowners. The cleanup began in September, and is now nearly at an end. The cause of the toxicity was the former battery manufacturer that once stood on Hoke Avenue.

According to the EPA, Exide Battery once bordered the houses to the east until its destruction in 2012. Exide purchased the plant from General Battery Company in 1987, and continued to produce batteries until 1999. For the following 13 years, Exide used the area to store equipment from other factories.

Frankfort High School freshman Jackson Britton was 11 years old when the plant was torn down. He says he remembers seeing a lot of bricks and dust. The EPA tested his parents' lawn last month, and found high levels of lead.

"It was a major shock to me, since it's toxic waste around the side of the house," he said. "I didn't think it was very dangerous."

The EPA's work has been led by Shelly Lam, an EPA project coordinator for central Indiana. A private company called Environmental Restoration contracted under the EPA is managing the day–to–day cleanup, including digging up, removing and replacing the contaminated soil.

click to enlarge Environmental Restoration, a proviate contractor hired by the EPA, removes contaminated soil from a property on Ohio Street in Frankfort. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL RHEINHEIMER
  • Environmental Restoration, a proviate contractor hired by the EPA, removes contaminated soil from a property on Ohio Street in Frankfort.
  • Photo by Michael Rheinheimer

Britton's neighbors Gerald Lee and Delores Wright have lived in the neighborhood for just a few years. They arrived right before the plant was torn down. When the EPA came to test Gerald's soil, he became concerned.

"I think it was a bad thing, really. I believe it's affected a lot of people's lives," he said. "I think there were some issues with even the water pollution — it's affected some of the neighbors. I don't know if they used to have a couple of wells on the other side [of the plant], but I think that did affect some people."

Wright said the cleanup did not cause any inconvenience for him and his wife, in fact, he was glad to see the contaminated soil go. Their new soil is showing signs of life already, with fresh grass growing up.

Among those not expecting to have contaminated soil were the homeowners on Ohio Street. Although their homes were outside the area originally identified by the FDA, several yards were found to contain toxic levels of lead. Lam admits, however, that at least one of those yards may not have been contaminated by Exide but that the EPA would still clean it at no cost to the homeowner.

Frankfort's Mayor Chris McBarnes led the charge to have the building torn down. He says that despite the pollution and the work the cleaning requires, he harbors no malice against Exide.

"This factory shut down when I was about 4 or 5 years old," he said. "I have no connection to the Exide [Technologies]. I don't know any of these individuals — I've never even met them personally — but [we have to have the] will to hold their feet to the fire ... Anytime we have a large commercial building being brought down in our city, I want to be sure it's being done in a safe manner."

Exide currently operates a battery recycling plant in Muncie and a battery manufacturing plant in Indianapolis. In March, the Department of Justice proposed a consent decree that would have allowed Exide Technologies to make up for numerous Clean Air Act violations.

click to enlarge Shelly Lam, EPA's onsite coordinator for the Frankfort cleanup, discusses with Dolores Wright how to best take care of her new sod. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL RHEINHEIMER
  • Shelly Lam, EPA's onsite coordinator for the Frankfort cleanup, discusses with Dolores Wright how to best take care of her new sod.
  • Photo by Michael Rheinheimer

In October, a coalition of health and environmental advocacy groups, led by the Hoosier Environmental Council, lobbied to have the plant in Muncie install something called a "wet electrostatic precipitator (WESP)" in addition to the requirements made in the consent decree.

According to Paul Dubenetzky, the director of air service quality at Quality Environmental Professionals, Inc., a WESP is a filtration device that collects lead oxide fumes from the air, keeping them from escaping into the environment.

Dennis Tyler, the mayor of Muncie, would also like to see a WESP installed. In a written statement, Tyler said "We understand that secondary lead smelters in Indianapolis as well as California use ... WESP that captures 98 percent of the arsenic and 99 percent of the lead that would otherwise be emitted into the environment. The city of Muncie deserves and expects the same level of protection ... as the city of Indianapolis and any other city."

Dubenetzky admitted that the installation of a WESP can be very expensive. In addition to the cost, Exide is not required by the consent decree to install the device, as the motion was defeated.

Indra Frank is a former pathologist who has been a health consultant to HEC since 2004. She is also a vocal proponent for the device's installation.

"I've seen data from one of the plants that uses a wet electrostatic precipitation, and they're achieving 95 perecent and better decreases in the lead and arsenic that would otherwise be going out their stack," she said. "Because that technology does such a great job with arsenic and lead, and since it's already in place at several lead smelters that are operating in the black, we felt that the best solution for Muncie would be to have the same degree of control."

As in Frankfort, the Exide plant in Muncie is surrounded by two different neighborhoods. Middletown Park sits 2,000 feet northwest of the plant and 3,000 feet to the southwest is Parkshire Place. Frank is concerned for the health of the people in these neighborhoods, especially the children.

click to enlarge A map of the contaminated neighborhood and location of the Exide battery plant in Frankfort.
  • A map of the contaminated neighborhood and location of the Exide battery plant in Frankfort.

"Anytime in the first six years of life, you could be talking about lead poisoning," she said. "Usually we're talking about the first two years of life — and that damage is permanent. There is no cure. Once those neurons have been damaged there is nothing that can be done about it."

According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning can be hazardous to children under the age of 6, but prolonged lead exposure is dangerous at any age. Their website states that exposure to low levels over time can cause brain development issues in young children, and kidney and nervous system issues over time.

In their Sept. 29 press release, the HEC said they would join with national organizations to advocate for stronger lead pollution control at the federal level. Exide Technologies declined to comment at this time.


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