Hoping to reduce harmful mercury emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency, the auto industry and environmental groups said Wednesday they have agreed to start a national program to collect mercury switches from scrapped automobiles.
Mercury switches were used in antilock brakes and in convenience lights in trunks and under the hoods of vehicles built as late as the 2002 model year. An estimated 35 million switches are currently being used in vehicles, the auto industry reports, and some automobiles have multiple switches.
The program, announced as a tentative agreement by the EPA and several groups, would recover and recycle the pellet-sized switches before the vehicles are shredded and crushed for recycling.
It would build upon programs used by some states and try to prevent mercury from being released into the environment when the vehicles are crushed and shredded. Collection programs are currently used in Arkansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
“The hope is that we would be able to deal with the problem nationally as opposed to on a state-by-state basis,” said Charles Griffith, auto project director of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ecology Center.
Coal-burning power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States, according to the EPA. The mercury switches, which automakers began phasing out of their vehicles in the mid-1990s, are the nation’s largest manufacturing source of toxic mercury.
Mercury released into the air can accumulate in plants, fish and humans. Children and fetuses are vulnerable to the effects of the toxic metal, which can damage the development of the nervous system.
Under the tentative agreement:
- Automakers and the steel industry would create a three-year, $4 million fund to support the program. Both industries would promote the program.
- Automakers would be responsible for the collection, transportation and recycling of the switches. Auto dismantlers who recover the switches would submit them to the program.
- The program will be regularly evaluated to assess its progress. It’s expected to be used until 2017, when about 90 percent of the vehicles containing the mercury switches will be off the road.
The groups said in a statement that they still need to complete details on how to implement the new system, which could be put in place as early as next summer.
EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said the agency looks “forward to having more to say when the parties complete a formal agreement.”
In addition to the EPA, the groups involved in the negotiations included the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Steel Recycling Institute, Environmental Defense, the Ecology Center and the Environmental Council of the States.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement it “continues to believe that a comprehensive strategy is necessary to reduce mercury in all consumer products.”