Automakers Challenge Main's Mercury Switch Removal Law

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block a Maine law requiring the industry to recycle mercury in the electronic switches of scrapped cars and trucks.

The group also has filed a plan, as required by Maine to comply with the new law, that will allow for collection starting on January 1, 2003.

Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, "We believe that any environmental concerns surrounding the improper disposal of mercury are best addressed by the existing laws to handle this. The Alliance provides technical assistance to those in the auto dismantling industry to ensure mercury switches are removed without harming the environment."

The suit said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is violating the U.S. Constitution by forcing out-of-state automakers to create and finance a system for collecting Maine's hazardous waste.

"In short, (the law) effectively forces out-of-state companies to enter the recycling business against their will and, in effect, subsidizes the balance sheets of Maine recyclers and disposal companies who are relieved of the burden of having to handle these waste substances," the suit stated.

Maine's Legislature enacted the law in April to help reduce the amount of mercury that contaminates the state's environment. The law requires automakers that sell cars in Maine to create a collection facility and pay $1 for each mercury switch recovered from scrapped automobiles.

Mercury conducts electricity and withstands a range of temperatures. It was commonly used in light switches and anti-lock brake switches in cars until 1997. As long as the vial containing the mercury is not broken, the mercury will not come in contact with the environment.

"In 1997, automakers committed to removing mercury switches from vehicles," said Mr. Territo. "The industry has voluntarily phased out all use of mercury in vehicles as of January 1, 2003. Very few new vehicles on the road today contain mercury."

Maine's law was written to provide a financial incentive for wreckers and auto recycling yards to recover the switches. The lawsuit claims automakers were singled out while makers of aircraft, boats, appliances and other products with mercury switches were ignored.

The alliance is a group of 12 major automakers that account for 90 percent of U.S. auto sales. They employ about 600,000 people in 35 states, according to the suit, but have no significant operations in Maine.