CIENEGA DE FLORES, Mexico — When an American replaces the battery in a car, likely as not the old battery will be shipped to Mexico rather than trucked to a modern U.S. recycling plant.
U.S. recyclers have some of the world’s top technology for safely breaking apart batteries to smelt the lead for reuse. But U.S. recycling plants are closing down or standing idle.
Plants in Mexico are not.
Mexico has won a leg up for a reason: Its lead-emissions standards are one-tenth as stringent as U.S. standards. Mexican factories can ignore strict U.S. regulations that cap harmful lead emissions onto factory floors and into the air.
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The result has been an ever-increasing surge in the trade of used batteries across the border. One watchdog group estimated that in 2011, the dead batteries headed to Mexico would have filled 17,952 tractor-trailers.
And the trade keeps growing, the result of a stark regulatory gap that has left Mexico at risk of becoming a “pollution haven,” according to a Montreal-based commission that investigates environmental issues under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the economic accord between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Canada’s standards are also lower than in the United States, but not nearly as lax as those of Mexico.
The NAFTA environmental cooperation commission issued a draft report in November citing a dramatic increase in exports of spent lead-acid batteries, or SLABS, to Mexico over the past decade.
“According to our estimates, between 2004 and 2011, the U.S. exports of SLABs to Mexico increased by anywhere from 449 percent to 525 percent,” said Irasema Coronado, the executive director of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the trilateral NAFTA board.
U.S. smelters and recycling firms that don’t have operations in Mexico are demanding that the environmental bar be raised for companies in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada.
Even as recycling has become the norm, the United States has seen huge consolidation of lead smelting and refining. In a little more than four decades, the number of smelters in the U.S. has fallen from 154 to 14. At the top of the heap is Johnson Controls, a diversified industrial conglomerate based in Milwaukee that is the world’s largest supplier of automotive batteries.
Johnson Controls has two huge recycling plants in Mexico, one in Cienega de Flores, about 10 miles north of Monterrey, an industrial hub, and another newer facility in Garcia, on the city’s western outskirts. The two plants receive nearly three-quarters of the spent batteries sent to Mexico for recycling.
U.S. watchdog groups say the Johnson Controls plant here emitted more than six metric tons of lead into the air in 2010, 33 times the level of emissions expected for a much cleaner plant it opened in Florence, S.C., in September.
Marisa Jacott, head of Fronteras Comunes, a nonprofit group that monitors toxic waste in Mexico said Mexican factory workers are often too poor to organize or complain when workers or their children fall ill from substances such as lead dust.
The director of global communications for Johnson Controls, Rebecca Fitzgerald, said blood-lead levels of all employees at the company’s Cienega de Flores plant “have been below the U.S. blood-lead standard of 40 micrograms per deciliter for more than three years.”
Johnson Controls has run into problems with excessive emissions before. A year ago, Chinese authorities shut the company’s Shanghai battery-manufacturing plant after reports that 49 children in the area had elevated blood-lead levels.
Johnson Controls says it operates a “closed loop recycling system” that never allows spent batteries outside of its control, even as they cross international borders.
There is, however, a black market in batteries, driven in part by Chinese demand for batteries and the rise in prices that’s driven for recycled lead.
In late January, authorities seized 37 tons of used batteries at a ramshackle lot in Ciudad Juárez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas. The owner of the lot said he planned to take spent batteries to Nuevo León state, home of Monterrey, for recycling but declined to say if the batteries had come from the United States.
The huge gap between U.S. and Mexico on lead-emissions dates to 2008, when science advisers told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tighten standards for airborne lead particles.
The change was implemented, cutting the allowable standards of lead concentrations to a tenth of the previous standard, which had not been altered in three decades.
“It’s certainly increased costs,” said Bruce Cole, executive vice president of Exide Technologies, a battery recycler based in Milton, Ga., which once operated six recycling factories in the United States.
“Raising the bar is what it’s all about,” said Coronado, the director of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, adding that she hopes Canada, the U.S. and Mexico “are able to harmonize how they are going to deal with these batteries.”
A withering report by the commission was sent to the three countries in February, and the three governments are expected to vote on its findings by April 5.