CEC Secretariat releases final independent report investigating environmental and health hazards of spent lead-acid battery trade

Report recommends specific policy actions to North American governments on how to handle this common and potentially hazardous waste.

Montreal, 15 April 2013—On Monday, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation Secretariat released its final independent report: Hazardous Trade? An Examination of US-generated Spent Lead-acid Battery Exports and Secondary Lead Recycling in Mexico, the United States and Canada. The report analyzes the reported cross-border trade in lead-acid batteries and presents recommendations on how to better monitor their handling to the CEC Council, composed of Canada’s Environment Minister, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment, and the US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. To download the report, visit www.cec.org/slabs.

Spent lead-acid batteries (SLABs) from cars and trucks are one of the world’s most-recycled consumer products because the lead they contain is valuable and can be processed for reuse. The CEC initiated this report in response to concerns that US companies were shipping batteries to Mexico and other countries to avoid the cost imposed by stricter environmental laws.

“If not handled properly, lead presents a grave health risk to workers and also to the young children and community members who live near smelting facilities. All of us who own a car ‘own’ this problem, and need to feel confident that the hazardous waste we bring in for recycling is being disposed of properly, no matter where it is sent for processing,” said Irasema Coronado, CEC executive director.

Findings include:

  • The regulatory frameworks covering sec­ondary lead smelters in the United States, Canada and Mexico do not provide equivalent levels of environmental and health protec­tion. Currently, the United States has the most stringent overall framework, while Mexico, with significant gaps in its existing regulatory framework, is the furthest from US stan­dards in terms of certain emission controls and requirements.
  • According to estimates, between 2004 and 2011, US net exports to Mexico increased by between 449 and 525 percent.
  • A review of USEPA and US Census Bureau data indicated that 47,352,382 kg of SLABs were exported to Mexico in 2011 without applying the proper harmonized tariff code.

Recommendations include:

  • The governments in Canada and Mexico should commit to achieving levels of environmental and health protections in the secondary lead industry that are functionally equivalent to those in the US.
  • The US should require the use of manifests for each international shipment of SLABs, and require exporters to obtain a certificate of recovery from recycling facilities.
  • Mexico needs to establish a comprehensive monitoring system to measure lead air emissions from every secondary lead smelter in operation in the country.

The report draws on statistics detailing the legal trade in SLABs from Environment Canada, the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Census Bureau, and the Mexican government.

In reaction to the report’s development, Mexico’s environmental enforcement agency Profepa ramped up investigations and operations. The implementation of a special program to target this issue has led to the inspection, during 2012 and 2013, of 20 facilities authorized to recycle SLABs, and more than 256 tons of SLABs seized in different enforcement actions across the country.

“Mexico is already taking action, which bodes well for this issue in the future, and the CEC will continue to support Mexico in their efforts. The handling of SLABs presents an opportunity for North American environmental agencies to cooperate and raise the bar on enforcement and compliance,” said Irasema Coronado.

Article 13 of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) states that the CEC Secretariat may prepare independent reports for the CEC Council.Hazardous Trade? An Examination of US-generated Spent Lead-acid Battery Exports and Secondary Lead Recycling in Mexico, the United States and Canada was released in draft form in December 2012 and posted to the CEC website for public comments.

The CEC received several comments from industry, NGOs and government (available on the CEC website) and on 5 February 2013, the Secretariat resubmitted a final version to the CEC Council. According to procedure in Article 13, the Council then normally has 60 days to vote on whether to make the report publicly available.