It has taken millions of people's jobs and houses. Could the global recession now threaten our health?
This theoretical question is at the heart of a regulatory standoff between California toxics police and the automobile recycling industry.
State regulators want auto recyclers to cease dumping 700,000 tons of potentially toxic automobile recycling waste into municipal landfills, and instead cart it to special, highly-expensive, toxic-waste holding facilities. The recyclers have said that such a step would be too expensive. The current recession has dumped scrap metal prices into the gutter, adding plausibility to recyclers' threat to go out of business if the regs pass -- and in so doing, turn California into a redneck's paradise of abandoned, unrecycled cars. (See SF Weekly's related cover story here).
Last week the recyclers asked state officials to postpone a March 30 decision on whether to enact rules that could halt them from dumping the hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste left over once recycling mills grind automobiles into walnut-sized chunks, then pick away the metals with giant magnets.
Since the 1980s, regulators have allowed this ground-up foam, wiring, plastic bumpers, underbody sludge, and other unrecyclable leftovers to be disposed of as if it were harmless household garbage, in county municipal landfills. According to this decades-old policy, recyclers merely had to cover the chunks of waste with a cement-like coating, and it was ruled to be safe for burial.
Scientists, including Peter Wood of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, have begged to differ. Wood advocates the rule change, saying waste from new cars is even more rife with toxic minerals than older cares were, and therefore shouldn't be buried in the ground.
Holding his ground in defense of the proposal for stricter regulation has apparently meant slogging through piles of data, analyzing highly technical arguments combining organic chemistry, economics, environmental science, geology, geography, and public health.
Wood described last week's meeting in a Monday e-mail:
"We met with representatives of the shredder industry this past Tuesday to discuss the 27-page letter, (plus seven boxes of supporting documents, submitted by the recycling industry)," he wrote.
Despite the info-torrent, Wood was apparently able to spot a hole in the industry's argument that their waste is safe in county dumps.
"Statistical analysis conducted by one of their consultants failed to look at copper, an important contaminant in auto shredder waste," Wood wrote.
With the economy and a beleagured industry seemingly pitted against him, Wood is weathering the bureacratic version of a hurricane. For health's sake we hope the department's proposed anti-toxics rule prevails.
Photo | Zach Flanders