When state inspectors arrived at the Johnson Controls lead battery recycling plant in 2014, they found piles of slag and dust on a loading dock, broken cleaning equipment and a pollution control device that wasn’t doing its job, records show.
Follow-up inspections during the next year revealed holes in the walls, lead-bearing material in pools of water and a suspect alarm system at the plant in eastern South Carolina, according to a recent state enforcement order that carried an unusually large fine against Johnson Controls.
The state’s enforcement action hit Johnson Controls with a $250,000 penalty, the largest fine levied against anyone last year for air pollution violations in South Carolina. Regulators said the extent of the violations and the toxin involved — lead — justified the size of the penalty.
Lead is a heavy metal that can cause brain damage in children and kidney failure in adults who are exposed to the material in sufficient amounts. As a battery recycling company, Johnson Controls handles lead and is therefore required to operate systems that keep the heavy metal from escaping into the air, records show.
“We looked at the length of time the violations occurred and also the potential for harm to the public,” state air pollution regulator Rhonda Thompson said. “We are dealing with lead emissions.”
Fortunately, Thompson and others at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said they don’t think any lead escaped into the community surrounding the Florence battery plant. Air monitors didn’t register elevated lead levels leaving the property in Florence County, said Myra Reese, DHEC’s environmental division chief.
The state Labor Department, which monitors workplace safety, said it had not issued any citations related to the problems cited by DHEC.
Still, DHEC officials, who said the company has paid the $250,000 fine, are requiring Johnson Controls to hire a consultant to help determine how to resolve problems at the plant. A report is due later this month.
In a statement this week, Johnson Controls said the violations involved “deficiencies’’ in the way the company keeps records, monitors and reports information about the recycling plant. The company said any problems like that are unacceptable, but it noted that “none of these violations resulted in adverse impact to human health or environment.”
“We are continuing to work with the state to ensure that these administrative errors are fully corrected and do not distract us from continuing to operate this facility with the lowest environmental footprint,” company spokesman František Šašek said in an email to The State newspaper.
Despite assurances by Johnson Controls, Columbia environmental lawyer Bob Guild said the problems DHEC cited involve more than paperwork violations. He noted that DHEC inspectors found a door ajar that could allow lead to escape from the plant. He also said DHEC found dust that had been tracked through a work area and an alarm system that did not appear to work.
“It just looks like the sloppiest daggoned operation, which is really disturbing,” Guild said. “Lead is a very serious air pollutant.”
Guild took Johnson Controls to court on behalf of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the League of Women Voters about six years ago, seeking to stop the plant from opening. He later settled the case after Johnson Controls agreed to a series of demands to prevent lead from getting into the environment. He said the company’s troubles operating the plant are disappointing in light of the settlement.
The company broke ground in 2011, promising 250 jobs. Company employees successfully petitioned to remove union representation last spring.
DHEC’s 55-page enforcement order, announced this week, said the agency could not find proof that systems to control lead-contamination were working as proposed by Johnson Controls. A key concern by DHEC was whether the plant was properly operating an air pressure system. That system keeps air flowing in a way that prevents lead from leaking out of the plant. Areas with holes in the walls, found on several occasions at the plant, provide avenues for lead to escape.
The agency also had concerns about dust not being cleaned up, the order said, citing several instances in which dust coated floors. Lead is part of the recycling process, and there are concerns that lead can contaminate the dust.
The company, headquartered in Wisconsin, has had issues in South Carolina before. A worker at the recycling plant died earlier this year in an industrial accident.
Several years ago, Johnson Controls ran afoul of the University of South Carolina after a biomass plant the company was building for USC ran into a series of problems, including multiple breakdowns and a 2009 explosion that sent a metal panel 60 feet in the air.