The Bush administration has brokered a pact with the steel and auto industries to remove millions of mercury-containing light switches from vehicles before they are scrapped.
Although foreign automakers stopped using mercury in their cars' lighting systems in 1993 and domestic manufacturers did the same in 2002, about 67.5 million switches are still used in older cars and trucks. The toxic metal -- which is released into the air when recyclers flatten and shred old automobiles and melt them for their steel -- can cause neurological and developmental problems in infants and small children.
The program will reduce the country's annual mercury pollution by at least 5 percent over the next 15 years, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said in an interview yesterday. Under the pact announced yesterday, the steel and auto industries will pay $2 million each to recover 4 million switches over the next three years.
"President Bush and our partners have taken a big step to erase this source of mercury pollution," Johnson said, adding that he is "very confident" the program will ultimately remove the country's remaining mercury-containing switches. "It's a pollution-prevention approach."
While U.S. automakers initially resisted paying for the effort -- Johnson called the two-year negotiation over the program "difficult" -- other industries involved in the recycling of as many as 12 million autos a year backed the program.
Eager to be part of the solution
Mark Reiter, vice president of governmental affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said his trade association's 1,400 members felt strongly about reducing their industry's impact on its surroundings.
"They didn't want to make an environmental problem," Reiter said. "Because mercury is pernicious to kids, people felt very emotional about this. People did not want another Superfund."
Environmental advocacy groups, including the Michigan-based Ecology Center and New York-based Environmental Defense, have lobbied state and federal officials to address the problem of mercury switches for five years. Over the past three decades U.S. automakers have installed more than 200 million mercury switches, containing nearly 250 tons of mercury.
Ten states -- Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Utah -- have adopted programs to remove the switches, which are about the size of a pencil eraser.
"Recovering mercury switches from old cars will remove up to 75 tons of highly toxic mercury from our air and water," said Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp. "Look what can be done where there is the will to achieve real progress, and a cooperative approach."
The program will provide participants with a financial incentive to remove the switches, Johnson said, but if it fails to meet its objective federal officials can always regulate mercury emissions from the steel mill furnaces that melt used vehicles.
"We still have that tool in our toolbox," he said.