CIENEGA DE FLORES, Mexico — When an American replaces the battery in a car, likely as not the old battery will be shipped to Mexico rather than trucked to a modern U.S. recycling plant.
U.S. recyclers have some of the world’s top technology for safely breaking apart batteries to smelt the lead for reuse. But U.S. recycling plants are closing down or standing idle.
Plants in Mexico are not.
Mexico has won a leg up for a reason: Its lead emissions standards are one-tenth as stringent as U.S. standards. Mexican factories can ignore strict U.S. regulations that cap harmful lead emissions onto factory floors and into the air.
The result has been an ever-increasing surge in the trade of used batteries across the border. One watchdog group estimated that in 2011, the dead batteries headed to Mexico would have filled 17,952 tractor-trailers. And the trade keeps growing, the result of a stark regulatory gap that has left Mexico at risk of becoming a “pollution haven,” according to a Montreal-based commission that investigates environmental issues under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the economic accord between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Most American consumers are accustomed to turning in their spent car batteries when buying new ones, pleased to take part in a successful recycling program but unaware of how it takes place.
“There’s a good chance that your battery will be recycled at a plant with far inferior pollution controls than in the U.S.,” said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of a San Francisco-based advocacy group Occupational Knowledge International.
Canada’s standards are also lower than in the United States, but not nearly as lax as those of Mexico.
“Raising the bar is what it’s all about,” said Irasema Coronado, the executive director of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the trilateral NAFTA board, adding that she hopes the three nations “are able to harmonize how they are going to deal with these batteries.”
“I do reiterate that all of us who own a car in North America own this problem,” she said.
Lead acid batteries are an ever-present – if partially hidden – fact of modern life. The rechargeable batteries not only help drivers start cars, trucks and golf carts, they have many other uses. Tens of thousands of U.S. cellular phone towers and computer server farms maintain banks of lead acid batteries for backup power in the event of an emergency. Even submarines use the batteries.
Once their useful life ends, the spent batteries are considered hazardous waste and must be recycled. The lead inside can be recycled indefinitely.
Scientists now say that exposure to lead – even in minute quantities – can lead to cardiovascular disease, kidney damage and neurological disorders. Ten months ago, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that “there is no safe level of lead.”
The NAFTA environmental cooperation commission issued a draft report in November citing a dramatic increase in exports of spent lead-acid batteries, or SLABS, to Mexico over the past decade.
“According to our estimates, between 2004 and 2011, the U.S. exports of SLABs to Mexico increased by anywhere from 449 percent to 525 percent,” Coronado said.
It’s not just environmentalists worried about the issue. U.S. smelters and recycling firms that don’t have operations in Mexico also are demanding that the environmental bar be raised for companies in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada.
In late December, one company, Dallas-based RSR Corp., urged that the three nations take “robust and immediate action to halt battery exports.”
“Allowing the tsunami of lead acid batteries to continue to be exported to Mexican facilities sentences those working in or living near these facilities to a lifetime of increased lead burden in their bodies,” RSR chief executive Robert E. Finn said in a Dec. 21 letter to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
Even as recycling has become the norm, the United States has seen huge consolidation of lead smelting and refining. In a little more than four decades, the number of smelters in the U.S. has fallen from 154 to 14. At the top of the heap is Johnson Controls Inc., a diversified industrial conglomerate based in Milwaukee that is the world’s largest supplier of automotive batteries.
Johnson Controls has two huge recycling plants in Mexico, one in Cienega de Flores, about 10 miles north of Monterrey, an industrial hub, and another newer facility in Garcia, on the city’s western outskirts. The two plants receive nearly three-quarters of the spent batteries sent to Mexico for recycling.
U.S. watchdog groups say the Johnson Controls plant here emitted more than six metric tons of lead into the air in 2010, 33 times the level of emissions expected for a much cleaner plant it opened in Florence, S.C., in September.
Mexican activists say they are concerned about what they see as a double standard but have been unable to gather data from the company.
“When we asked for information about emissions and lead blood levels, they never responded to us,” said Marisa Jacott, head of Fronteras Comunes, a nonprofit group that monitors toxic waste in Mexico.
Jacott said Mexican factory workers are often too poor to organize or complain when workers or their children fall ill from substances such as lead dust.
“There are few who have the resources to pay for tests of lead levels in their children,” she said, adding that at health clinics, “sometimes they just diagnose the kids with attention-deficit disorder or they blame the mothers for the kids being dull.”
Lead particles can escape from recycling plants in exhaust gases, dust emissions and in water discharges. Workers can take lead particles home on their clothing or their cars.
The director of global communications for Johnson Controls, Rebecca K. Fitzgerald, said blood-lead levels of all employees at the company’s Cienega de Flores plant “have been below the U.S. blood-lead standard of 40 micrograms per deciliter for more than three years.”
She added in an email that as of January, the factory “has had an average of 93 percent employees with a blood-lead level below 20 micrograms per deciliter, representing world-class blood levels.”
Citing a “highly competitive environment with this business,” Fitzgerald said the company “unfortunately cannot share at this time” more precise data about emissions from the plant.
Johnson Controls has run into problems with excessive emissions before. A year ago, Chinese authorities shut the company’s Shanghai battery manufacturing plant following reports that 49 children in the area had elevated blood-lead levels.
Gottesfeld, the occupational safety activist, disputed that Johnson Controls had reached adequate safety levels at the plant in Cienega de Flores.
“There is no occupational physician alive who would say that this is an adequate standard or ‘world class,’” he said.
Johnson Controls says it operates a “closed loop recycling system” that never allows spent batteries outside of its control, even as they cross international borders.
There is, however, a black market in batteries, driven in part by Chinese demand for batteries and the rise in prices that’s driven for recycled lead.
In late January, authorities seized 37 tons of used batteries at a ramshackle lot in Ciudad Juarez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas. The owner of the lot said he planned to take spent batteries to Nuevo Leon state, home of Monterrey, for recycling but declined to say if the batteries had come from the United States.
The huge gap between U.S. and Mexico on lead emissions dates to 2008, when science advisers told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tighten standards for airborne lead particles. The change was implemented, cutting the allowable standards of lead concentrations to a tenth of the previous standard, which had not been altered in three decades.
“It’s certainly increased costs,” said Bruce Cole, executive vice president of Exide Technologies, a battery recycler based in Milton, Ga., which once operated six recycling factories in the United States. The firm closed a plant in Frisco, Texas, in November and will idle a plant in Reading, Pa., by the end of this month.
To meet the tougher standards, Cole said, “we’ve had to make very significant investments in all facilities. They include environmental control systems, facility enclosures (and) putting buildings under negative pressure so that emissions can’t get out.”
The withering report by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation was sent to Ottawa, Washington and Mexico City in February, Coronado said, and the three governments are expected to vote on its findings by April 5.
Even if the three nations harmonize rules, Mexico has a long way to go to ensure compliance. The commission’s report said Mexican regulators fail to measure stack emissions at smelters, collect adequate air quality data or enforce that recyclers report lead emissions.
The panorama, according to a letter from RSR Corp. CEO Finn to the commission, "is an alarming portrait of a virtually nonexistent regulatory regime" in Mexico.
Jacott, the Mexican toxic waste activist, still holds out for a simple dream.
“We just want the environmental and health rules to be the same here as in the United States,” she said.
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