WASHINGTON—A new recycling initiative could remove tons of potentially deadly mercury from the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, but critics and state administrators of similar programs are questioning whether the program will work, calling it underfunded and unrealistic.
The program, which the EPA and leaders of the steel and auto industries announced last Friday, centers on mercury-filled switches that control automatic lights in cars. The switches are the fourth-largest source of mercury pollution in the U.S. each year, according to EPA estimates.
Mercury-filled switches haven't been used in new cars since model year 2003, but tens of millions of older cars have mercury switches that will be crushed when they're recycled. If a car's mercury switch is recycled with the rest of the car, the mercury either leaks into the ground or is vaporized in steel furnaces, falling miles away. The metal can build up in living tissues and damage the nervous system. It's especially dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children.
The new program, which starts next month, will work on a voluntary basis. Automakers and steel manufacturers will contribute $4 million to a fund to educate junkyards about the benefits of removing mercury switches, which they can then dispose of properly.
The program would safely dispose of 75 tons of mercury over the next 15 years, according to the EPA. About 13.5 million cars are recycled each year.
The program "will definitely produce a reduced level of mercury," said Nancy Gravatt, spokeswoman for the American Iron and Steel Institute, a lobbying group that promoted the program. She said it's much more cost-effective "than going to the steel manufacturers and having them spend billions of dollars on some new technology" to eliminate mercury from their emissions.
Steelmakers who buy junked cars with the switches removed won't have to install air-purifying devices to remove mercury from their waste, since there shouldn't be any mercury present in the recycled car steel.
But critics say that junkyards won't remove the switches because the program won't pay enough for each mercury switch they pull out.
Some salvagers will remove the switches to help the environment, said Carole Cifrino of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but many won't because there's no money in it. "This will just be too much extra work for no benefit to them," she said. "A financial incentive to remove and collect switches increases participation."
The state of Maine has had a mercury switch removal program for four years and has only recovered 10 percent to 15 percent of cars' switches. Maine recently increased its payment per switch from $1 to $4 to boost participation. The EPA has set a national target of recovering 90 percent of mercury switches.
It costs about $3 worth of labor to remove each switch, said Mark Ryder of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which signed on to the national program. "The only way you're going to get those folks invested in consistently removing those switches is by paying them to do so," he said.
Ryder called the $4 million fund "minimal." Washington state alone has a $1 million fund for switch removal.
A $3 reward for removing switches is absolutely necessary to Washington state's program, said Dennis Bowhay of the Washington Department of Environmental Protection. "It doesn't take long to pull a mercury switch out of any given car, but the bounty provides that little extra incentive to actually look and go do it."
Even if all of the $4 million went toward payments, junkyards would receive only $1 per switch if the EPA's stated goal of removing 4 million switches in three years is met.
But the EPA said that junkyards still will be pressured to remove the switches because steelmakers will prefer buying scrap cars that don't have them.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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