Ruling & Regulations: EPA, Industry Offer Mercury-Switch Solution

Oct. 26, 2006
Outline a nationwide program to retrieve switches from scrapped vehicles, prior to processing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a host of industry groups have completed details of a nationwide program to retrieve mercury-containing light switches from scrapped vehicles prior to processing them as scrap. Traces of mercury in steel scrap can contaminate the batch and escape into the atmosphere as airborne emissions, because furnace scrubbers and other emissions-control systems are generally incapable of containing the toxin.

Small amounts of mercury can cause damage to the human nervous system, and trace amounts have been shown to disrupt brain development in fetuses and children.

EPA and its partners expect the program will cut mercury air emissions by up to 75 tons over the next 15 years. Joining EPA in the new effort are the End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corp., the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Steel Manufacturers Assn., the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the Automotive Recyclers Assn., Environmental Defense, the Ecology Center, and representatives of the Environmental Council of the States.

Mercury was used as an activator in light switches that turn on trunk and overhead lamps automatically, until U.S. automakers discontinued their use in 2002. EPA estimates that 67.5 million switches remain in use in older vehicles, available for recovery.

The new program involves a financial incentive for automobile dismantlers to remove the mercury-containing light switches from scrapped vehicles prior to flattening and shredding. Specific details of the financial element of the program have not been reported.

Domestic steelmakers recycle over 14 million tons of steel annually from scrapped vehicles. Mercury-switch recovery efforts have already been established in various states. Other, larger sources of mercury air emissions are coal-fired utility boilers, industrial boilers, and mining, and recent efforts to cut mercury emissions have targeted industrial boilers, chlorine production facilities, and coal-fired power plants.

Pacific Steel Casting is being sued again by California’s Bay Area Air Quality Management District, for failure to install a $2-million odor-reducing system. It is the third lawsuit related to this issue, claiming Pacific Steel Casting has not obtained timely approvals from the city of Berkeley, CA, and the District for installing the carbon absorption system at its Plant No.3. It also claims that the company failed to meet a May deadline for submitting updated emissions reports. The lawsuit asks the court to apply a penalty up to $10,000 for each day that the plant’s emissions inventory is not submitted. In December, BAAQMD and Pacific Steel reached a settlement following years of complaints from area residents and merchants over the smell of “burning plastic in the air” and alleged health problems. The system to be installed in PSC’s No. 3 plant is similar what has been installed in the No.1 and No. 2 plants.

Plans to clean up at the former site of Consolidated Iron and Metal in Newburgh, NY, by the U.S. EPA include a proposal to remove approximately 78,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The EPA will monitor the ground water to ensure that it is not impacted by the soil removal. Consolidated Iron and Metal operated at the site for 40 years before closing in 1999, including from 1975 to 1995 a secondary aluminum melting operation to process scrap, transmissions, and other metallic materials. In 1999 the New York State Attorney General closed the site.

The U.S. EPA Region 5 cited Sturgis Iron and Metal Co. for alleged clean-air violations at the company’s secondary aluminum production plant in South Bend, IN. The EPA alleges a sweat furnace with an afterburner was operated without complying with federal testing, planning, notification, and record-keeping requirements.

The U.S. EPA agreed with Remelt Services Inc. on alleged clean-air violations at its aluminum recovery plant in Cleveland. Parent company Beck Aluminum Corp. will pay a $70,000 penalty and Remelt will pay a $10,000 penalty. This resolves allegations that the company failed to meet requirements for proper operation, monitoring, planning, record-keeping, and notification from Sept. 2003 to Dec. 2005.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined J&J Bronze & Aluminum Casting Corp. $144,750 for 33 alleged willful, serious, and other-than-serious safety and health hazards following an inspection at the Brooklyn, NY, site. Cited in the fines and violations were unguarded machinery, inadequate hearing protection, lead overexposures, and a steam explosion hazard.

The Assigned Protection Factor (APFs) system for respiratory protection has been incorporated into the OSHA respiratory protection standard. APFs indicate the level of workplace respiratory protection that a respirator, or class of respirators, is expected to provide as part of an effective respiratory protection program. Employers must follow these requirements and use APFs to select appropriate respirators based on the exposure limit of contaminant and the level of contaminant in the workplace. OSHA’s final respiratory standard of APFs was published August 24 in the Federal Register.