It may be illegal but the re-labeling of spent auto batteries has its adherents . . .and rewards

Mar 01, 2010 | 06:22 AM | Paul Schaffer

Polemics about the unsafe handling of U.S. hazardous scrap sent abroad have generally focused on discarded electronics and obsolete ships. A third category may need to be added: lead batteries.

The disappearance of mom-and-pop battery-breaking operations in the United States counts as a major achievement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Quite a few Superfund sites are still around to remind us of past carelessness.

One reason for surmising a current problem with overseas shipments is that export statistics show strange month-to-month shifts among subcategories while totals for lead-related scrap hold fairly steady. One interpretation is that some shippers have been alerted to the lack of wisdom of labeling an export "spent lead-acid batteries," material that isn't a legitimate export to certain countries. Re-label that stuff—a tempting alternative description is scrap derived from lead-acid batteries—and the problem goes away.

In a move that further aggravated the problem, the EPA has imposed stiffer air emission rules for lead, cutting the permissible level by 90 percent. The change will take effect over several years, with state agencies having some control over the timetable. The eventual outcome is likely to be fewer domestic smelters and more battery scrap leaving the country. Some of that flow would be handled by major battery makers intimately familiar with recipient smelters in, say, Mexico. Some of the expanded exports would move through casual trading channels less susceptible to public scrutiny.....

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