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
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.
"Many countries do not have protective regulations and
controls to properly manage the handling, shipping, recycling
and disposal of spent lead-acid batteries and their
components," according to the Association of Battery Recyclers,
a smelter group. The battery recyclers argued that too
stringent a tightening of U.S. standards for airborne lead
would encourage the processing of U.S. battery scrap in other
countries with weak regulations.
The regulatory tug-of-war ended in a curious
split-the-difference action by the Bush administration: A
drastic tightening of the standard but with a smaller network
of monitoring stations for airborne lead than had been in the
original proposal. The Obama administration has proposed
undoing the metering curtailment.
The new standards now face court review. An appeals court
lawsuit by several smelters lists a variety of objections. Some
points touch on whether the EPA has been illegally secretive
about the medical research data underlying the rule-making. The
plaintiffs want a chance to critique it in detail.
Even with the lead limits set in 1978 still in effect, there
are claims that improper exports already occur to evade the
current rules. Cheating saves on shipping expenses and expands
the pool of potential buyers.
One red flag in the data is the large category "lead scrap
from batteries." That's supposed to refer to batteries that
have been broken up and drained of acid. For the latest 12
months tallied (through November 2009), that comes to 106,000
tonnes, or more than 40 percent of lead-related scrap exports.
The problem with that set of figures is that independent
battery breakers aren't very common these days, having been
rendered unprofitable due to environmental enforcement.
Smelters are equipped to break batteries big-time, but they do
it for on-site consumption, not for export.
Both factors point to the likelihood of mislabeling. If a
spent lead-acid battery is undrained, transportation rules can
be complex, particularly if the shipment is waterborne. Call it
scrap derived from batteries and you're off the hook.
Chinese regulations require licensing of imported waste
batteries. In 2008, Hong Kong's environmental protection office
counted 65 shipments of waste lead-acid batteries--totaling
about 1,700 tonnes-- that were intercepted and sent back to the
countries of origin, Web sites used by traders between the
United States and China suggest that deal-making in undrained
vehicle batteries is common between the two countries.
A look at India in the U.S. export figures also raises
questions. Scrap "from batteries" is 84 percent of the total,
while none of the volume is labeled as undrained vehicle
batteries. Since India prohibits the import of spent lead-acid
batteries, the likelihood of re-labeling is high.
Even shipments to Canada are problematic. Undrained vehicle
batteries can be sent there legally, but mislabeling can ease
the shipping arrangements. Among U.S.-to-Canada shipments
related to lead scrap, 84 percent are described as derived from
vehicle batteries and only 6 percent acknowledged as
A Jan. 8 rule-making by the EPA tightened the export
reporting requirements for undrained batteries that are labeled
as such. The change won't affect freight that is falsely
described, of course. The EPA's comments on the Jan. 8 changes
acknowledged that the Association of Battery Recyclers
advocated a ban on exports of spent lead-acid batteries to
countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, a group of industrial countries that includes
Mexico. "EPA cannot grant this request since the statute does
not give EPA the legal authority to implement an outright ban
on hazardous waste exports," the agency said.