In environmental terms, Cash for Clunkers is a jalopy

For Joe Shaghasi, general manager of San Francisco Ford Lincoln Mercury, the federal government's $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program that ended August 24 was economically and environmentally sublime.

"It's doing phenomenal," said Shaghasi, who estimates that his Van Ness Avenue dealership sold somewhere in the area of 1,000 new cars, while buying and destroying the same number of used vehicles. "People should know we're the home of [Ford's] Fusion hybrid. Be American; buy American," he added.

To make sure the program was a boon for the environment, Cash for Clunkers rules require that people trade in their old gas guzzlers — like a 1979 Chevy Suburban — for new cars with better gas mileage, like a Fusion hybrid. And that's pretty much the extent of consumers' knowledge about what is being billed as the most successful government program in decades.

If only it were as simple as that. While the program has improved the finances of car dealers such as Shaghasi, in environmental terms, Cash for Clunkers is a jalopy. As the government pays dealers to destroy hundreds of thousands of traded-in cars before they're worn out, the increased automobile recycling will produce hundreds of thousands of additional tons of toxic waste.

So the next time you see a fellow in a 1979 Suburban, don't scorn him for failing to take advantage of the Obama administration's eco-largesse. Instead, salute him for doing his part to help Mother Earth.

The Cash for Clunkers program has been widely panned by environmentalists. Pushing new high-mileage cars on people will encourage them to drive more, and smog is only one of the many environmental symptoms of Americans' automobile dependency disease. What's more, $3 billion spent on truly efficient environmental measures such as factory smokestack scrubbers would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions to a far greater extent than Cash for Clunkers ever will.

But those criticisms are mere naturalistic nitpicking compared to an Earth-hostile Cash for Clunkers side effect you haven't yet heard about. While "recycling" and "green" are often thought to go hand in hand, the reality is that automobile recycling is one of the filthiest toxic-waste-generating industries there is. And Cash for Clunkers will put that soil-, water-, and air-fouling business into overdrive.

Under Cash for Clunkers, traded-in cars go to a gigantic auto shredder such as Schnitzer Steel in Oakland. There, the metal from the clunkers is separated from pulverized nonusable material like dashboards so that it can be melted down and recycled to become "green steel," to be used in new toasters, office chairs, and automobiles. Sounds good so far, but there's a hitch: More than a quarter ton of each crushed and shredded car is never recycled. Seat cushions, plastic bumpers, road sludge, and other detritus is instead disposed of as garbage — highly toxic garbage.

New state research, meanwhile, suggests the very process of car recycling may also contaminate the air we breathe. Recently, state toxics experts have taken a closer look at automobile recyclers, and have not liked what they've seen. Regulators have attempted to curtail unsafe disposal of the industry's toxic tailings and to inform the public about possibly dangerous emissions from recycling plants. In response, the industry has revved up its lobbying, legal, and economic might. It now appears to be winning its fight to continue polluting, thus ensuring Cash for Clunkers will remain an greendoggle in California.

According to recent findings reported by California's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the massive car-shredders potentially pose a health risk to people downwind from the facilities.

In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington, an auto shredder at the Port of Los Angeles owned by SA Recycling has produced daily clouds of dust containing contaminants such as lead, according to a DTSC-commissioned survey by UC Davis scientists. The dust has settled over houses, a fire station, and a playground and community center nearby, the April 21 study said.

An attorney for SA Recycling said in a letter to state officials that the study's scientists failed to prove that the dust cloud came from the recycling operation and that it may have come from different types of facilities nearby. The lawyer also argued that there wasn't necessarily enough lead dust in the air downwind from the plant to constitute a health hazard.

The SA Recycling plant is one of at least seven metal shredders in California. Two of these, the Schnitzer Steel operation at the Port of Oakland and the Sims Metal plant in Redwood City, are near Bay Area neighborhoods. DTSC officials say they have spent the past year studying California's entire recycling industry.

I am not aware of any reports that say those facilities give off clouds of toxic dust. But I believe findings about lead particles settling on a Los Angeles community center are cause for concern to anyone downwind from an automobile recycling plant.

While the jury may be out on the degree to which auto recyclers spew toxic substances into the air, there's no doubt the recyclers are unsafely burying mountains of hazardous waste.

Just as they've fought back against state regulators who've begun to scrutinize their industry's air pollution problem, recycling executives have conducted a successful Sacramento lobbying campaign to defeat efforts to stop them from depositing toxic waste into ordinary county dumps.

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