Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Wake of Obama Visit to GM Plant, Administration Told GM Could Cause Soaring Mercury Emissions Starting Jan. 1, 2010

/PRNewswire/ -- In the wake of President Obama's visit to a General Motors (GM) plant earlier in the week, his Administration and key states were warned today that GM would be excluded from the country's automotive mercury recycling program at the end of this year.

The national administrator overseeing mercury recycling in automobiles made the announcement in an update to program participants this morning. In response, two allied environmental groups called on the Obama Administration or Congress to direct GM to change course, or risk the collapse of the program and a spike in toxic mercury emissions in U.S. communities nationwide.

"When GM testified before Congress last year, they said their bailout resources would be used to make the company greener, and they continue to insist that is what they are doing. Instead, today we find out that after December 31st, the company is actually going to be responsible for spewing more mercury into the air," said Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project. "GM is not lean and green if it sheds all of its environmental obligations onto the taxpayer and its competitors."

The national administrator, known as End of Live Vehicle Solutions (ELVS), issued a letter to states and the U.S. EPA today saying that unless General Motors (GM) acts now, ELVS will have to stop accepting mercury switches from scrap-yard bound GM vehicles starting January 1, 2010. This could result in tons of unnecessary mercury emissions from smoke stacks across the country, especially given that more than 700,000 vehicles poured into the system during the recently concluded Cash for Clunkers program.

ELVS is being forced to take this drastic step because GM is hiding behind its bankruptcy and reneging on its commitment to help fund the auto industry partnership that is crucial for keeping mercury out of the environment, the environmental groups agreed.

Over the past month, a number of environmental and industry groups have called on GM to meet its obligation to fund legacy mercury recovery costs from scrapped vehicles. On August 26, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for him to support efforts to get GM to restart its mercury efforts.

"When Obama spoke to the GM employees this week, he committed to 'fighting for an America where clean energy generates green jobs,' said Charles Griffith, head of the Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign. "We take him at his word, and fully support him in that effort.

"But GM, the company that his Administration owns, is pulling out of all its legacy environmental commitments. The Administration should step up and simply direct GM to rejoin this mercury recycling program - and live up to its responsibility to the environment more broadly."

ELVS was created to coordinate the efforts of auto manufacturers for the collection, transportation and proper recycling of mercury switches from end-of-life vehicles under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's facilitated National Vehicle Mercury Switch Removal Program. ELVS is reliant on funding from car manufacturers who produced these mercury switches on a proportional basis (i.e. the fees they pay are based on the number of mercury switches they produced).

Because it is estimated that around 54 percent of the vehicles containing mercury switches are GM models, GM has been the program's largest funder. According to industry estimates, nationally GM models now on the road contain more than 18 million mercury switches, or 39,000 pounds of the highly toxic substance.

Following their federally structured bankruptcy, General Motors Company or "new GM" last month informed ELVS that it was not a member of ELVS and is not responsible for mercury switches from older vehicles produced by "old GM", now known as Motors Liquidation Corporation. Since then Motor Liquidation has not communicated with ELVS, and has stopped funding the program.

Mercury switches were used to operate hood and truck convenience lights in vehicles made before 2004, when automakers stopped their use. Unless they are removed first, the mercury from auto switches is released to the air when vehicles are recycled at steel mills. This source contributes to both local and global mercury pollution and contamination of fish, and ultimately can cause devastating effects in human beings.

Mercury, particularly in the methylmercury form, is a potent neurotoxin that can impair neurological development in fetuses and young children and damage the nervous system of adults. It is toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative. Mercury can be deposited in water, soils, and air where microorganisms can convert it into the highly toxic methylmercury. Methylmercury is also created by combustion of mercury-containing materials like auto switches.

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