Long-term funding sought for mercury switch removal program

Former EPA administrator Stephen Johnson pulls the one millionth mercury switch as Pull-A-Part senior vice president Steve Levetan looks on. The incentive fund for switch removal may soon be exhausted.

The extremely successful National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program (NVMSRP), which has so far recovered more than 2 million mercury convenience light switches from vehicles, will soon be in need of stable long-term funding, said Steve Levetan, a member of the Automobile Recyclers Association (ARA) Legislative Committee.

The NVMSRP, a voluntary program, was created on August 11, 2006 and went into effect on September 10 of that year. The program created a $4 million fund for a three-year period that covers all mercury switches, but concentrates on convenience lighting mercury switches. It will accept and pay for anti-lock brake switches at $6 rather than the now $4 for convenience lighting switches.

“It was funded initially by the auto industry and the steel industry – each put $2 million into the program,” said Levetan. “That funding is about to run out, and we anticipate that will be towards the end of the summer. It’s in all of our interests to continue the program and continue to build on the successes of it.”

Auto recyclers are paid $4 per switch removed. Levetan is concerned that fewer switches will be removed once the bounty is no longer paid out.

“Some people will simply stop removing the switches due to the economic realities of the day,” he said.

The removal of mercury switches is connected to the Cash for Clunkers legislation.

“The bill requires that vehicles be properly handled environmentally and specifically, there is the removal of anti-freeze, lead products and mercury switches,” said Levetan. “Unfortunately, the funding for mercury switch removal will end when the Cash for Clunkers program kicks in. We have proposed that Congress fund the incentive program under the NVMSRP.”

He added that none of the stakeholders, from government to auto recyclers, want to see the mercury released into the environment and that recent discussions with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have resulted in support for a federal funding initiative to continue the removal program.

“Unfortunately this was brought in to them too late to get it put into the Cash for Clunkers legislation that was signed into law last June,” said Levetan.

The call for federal funding has been endorsed by the members of the NVMSRP who are allowed to make endorsements as the ARA, ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc.) and AISI (the American Iron and Steel Institute). The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) – environmental regulators at the state level – cannot endorse such funding requests.

Having a secure, non-contaminated feedstock is essential to the steel industry, which is a major consumer of recycled steel products. The key is to prevent mercury-laden shredded steel from entering electric arc furnace (EAF) steel mills where the mercury in those switches may be emitted into the atmosphere during the steel manufacturing process, and potentially place the public at risk of mercury pollution.

The automobile manufacturers also realize their role in ensuring that mercury switches are removed, which is why they are going to continue their role in the End of Life Vehicle Solutions program. The industry supplies buckets in which to place the mercury switches, collects the switches and recycles them.

While auto recyclers did not create the mercury switch problem, they are the first line of defense in dealing with this environmental hazard and nipping it in the bud.

“We agree and members of Congress that we have spoken to also agree,” said Levetan. “We’re very optimistic that we will have the opportunity to have funding for this included in some subsequent piece of legislation – hopefully much sooner than later.”

Levetan, senior vice president with Atlanta, Georgia-based Pull-A-Part, LLC, said that his company has removed and recycled over 70,000 of the 2 million-plus switches that have been removed nationwide.

Each switch contains about one gram of mercury and while the amount may be small, Levetan said the impact is enormous.

“One gram is enough to contaminate 132,000 gallons of water above EPA drinking water standards,” he said. “This is something you don’t want to fool around with. We were all collectively remiss in getting it to Congress’s attention sooner, but everybody seems to understand the importance of this.”

Mercury is a PBT – a persistent, bio-accumulative (additional mercury combines with mercury already in the environment), toxic substance. It can cause learning and other difficulties in young children and may also cause neurological problems in children and adults.

The goal is to secure between $20 million and $40 million to continue the program until its scheduled conclusion in 2017.

“In the context of the $1 billion for the Cash for Clunkers legislation, it is a very small amount to dedicate to a very important environmental issue,” said Levetan, who noted that cleanup efforts to remove mercury from contaminated areas such as lakes, rivers and land-based sites far exceed the cost of funding the removal program. “You can’t put a price on the damage that mercury can do once it is released into the environment and ingested into the whole ecosystem.”

The issue was raised during ISRI’s fourth annual Fly-In (held on June 17) to Congress to lobby for legislative issues on Capitol Hill. The recent lobbying effort had nearly 100 ISRI members visit more than 185 Congressmen.

According to ISRI, “ISRI members asked members of Congress to include funding for the mercury switch removal program. This vital program has resulted in removing switches and minimizing mercury going into scrap intended for steel mills. Every member of Congress was receptive to this funding proposal, and ISRI will ramp up efforts to achieve this funding in the very near term.”

Steel manufacturers have a major role in the program, which calls for them to assist in outreach and build awareness among the “steel scrap supply chain.”

“Steelmakers, according to the NVMSRP,” stated in an ISRI press release, “are to work with ISRI to assure that any scrap work practice standards or other programs implemented in accordance with the NVMSRP take into account market and technological factors and do not create unreasonable or unworkable certification requirements for scrap processors.”

The program also states that participation “may be a compliance option for steelmaking facilities to reduce mercury in scrap feedstock” by developing and implementing scrap work practice standards.