In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, the California recycling industry disposed of 632,500 tons of so-called "automobile shredder waste," which has been found to contain dangerous levels of contaminants such as lead, PCBs, and zinc. An industry-applied coating that is supposed to seal in such contaminants and prevent them from seeping into landfills has been found to be all but useless. Shredder waste from Schnitzer Steel at the Port of Oakland, for example, is sent to a landfill near Livermore, where it's mingled with garbage from San Francisco and elsewhere. As banana peels and old sofas rot into a gooey landfill sludge, the coating melts away, allowing toxins to seep downward.

"All it takes is an earthquake, and Californians could see their water quality compromised," said Rick Lymp, an an advocate demanding safer disposal of shredder waste.

According to a 1997 Ford Motor Company report, each shredded automobile produces 500 to 800 pounds of unrecyclable waste. That means the nearly 700,000 additional cars recycled as a result of Cash for Clunkers produced as much as 276,000 tons of toxic garbage.

Last fall, DTSC officials proposed a new policy that would have required recycling plants to dispose of toxic shredder residue in expensive, specially lined landfills created to hold hazardous materials. For 20 years, auto recyclers have been trucking the stuff to relatively unprotected county dumps. Continuing this policy would only increase the risk of allowing lead and other toxins to leach into groundwater.

Recyclers responded by saying they would not be able to stay in business if they had to pay the hazmat landfill fees. This is the standard economic argument against requiring industry to take care of its toxic castoffs. But since the 1978 Love Canal disaster, where a chemical dump poisoned upstate New Yorkers, the idea that it's good business to unsafely bury toxic waste has largely fallen from favor. Except in Sacramento, apparently.

In February, state Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) introduced an industry-backed bill that would override the proposed toxic rules. Instead of requiring that the waste be disposed of properly, the bill would create a "working group" of industry and state officials to determine whether shredder waste is hazardous. The bill says group members should pay special attention to the industry's economic needs.

Given that this waste contains dangerous levels of toxins proven to cause nervous disorders, cancers, and other diseases, and that state toxics regulators and university scientists have determined that these toxins can leach into landfills under the current policy, you might think Correa's bill would have been a hard sell. It wasn't.

During hearings, recycling industry representatives lined up to declare that the bill would help guarantee their economic survival. In June, the California Senate unanimously approved it in a floor vote. Last week, the bill was awaiting an Assembly vote, with no apparent roadblocks.

If the Assembly approves the bill and it's signed by the governor, every clunker turned in at the likes of San Francisco Ford Lincoln Mercury will result in at least a quarter ton of hazardous waste buried unsafely in the ground.

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