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.

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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