Cleaning up lead battery processing south of the border

Cleaning up lead battery processing south of the border

By Jake Thomas, Resource Recycling

A new report from an intergovernmental organization is raising concerns about an increase in spent lead batteries being sent from the U.S. to Mexico for recycling, where they are processed under much more lax environmental and health regulations than in the U.S.

The report was prepared by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organization that seeks to promote cooperation between the U.S., Mexico and Canada on environmental issues.

According to the report, between 2004 and 2011, U.S. net exports of spent lead acid batteries (SLABs) increased by up to 525 percent to Mexico and by 221 percent to Canada. In Mexico, 30 to 60 percent of all batteries currently recycled in the country came from the U.S.

"This recycling occurs in a regulatory environment with less stringent controls on lead pollution and the protection of workers and public health than in the United States, and in which recycling facilities demonstrate a wide range of environmental practices, processes and control technologies," reads the report.

The report explains that when the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, a parallel agreement called the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) also went into effect. Both agreements, according to the report, contain principles holding that free trade should not trigger a "race to the bottom" nor should it "be sought on the basis of lower environmental standards or lax enforcement." The report states that the NAAEC obliges countries covered by it to ensure that their laws and regulations establish high levels of environmental protection and cooperate toward that end. The report was prepared as part of the NAAEC accord.

The report was produced in response to concerns, that since the U.S. strengthened its air pollution standards for lead in 2008, there has been a sharp increase of SLAB exports to Mexico, which could potentially imperil the health of people working in or living near facilities that process the discarded batteries. Additionally, there is unease that the competitiveness of the U.S. battery recycling industry is being undermined.

"Notwithstanding Mexico's permitting process, important gaps remain in its overall regulatory framework, as well as with respect to the prevailing environmental and public health standards in the United States and Canada," reads the report.

The report faults the U.S. for not keeping better tabs on exports of SLABs, stating that the U.S. does not follow procedures common in other developed countries meant to monitor hazardous waste shipments. Additionally, the report found that SLABs have been exported to Mexico from the U.S. without using the proper tariff code. It also found evidence that exporters are sending SLABs to countries without first obtaining permission, which could be a violation of laws in both the U.S. and the importing countries. Trade data kept by the U.S. and Mexico also did match up, according to the report.

The report calls on all three countries to improve trade compliance efforts, while specifically recommending that Mexico establish a better regulatory framework that provides public health and environmental protections equivalent to those in the U.S. Additionally, it recommends that governments in all three countries work to establish best practices for the secondary lead smelters throughout the region. Specifically, it encourages Mexico to implement a battery stewardship program.

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