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    Battery Recycling? Not in my Backyard!

    By Keith R | March 24, 2007

    Topics: Hazardous Substances, Waste & Recycling | No Comments »

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    As the video below from RPC (Rede Paranaense de Comunicação) TV demonstrates, there’s an interesting flap underway in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. Seems that a number of neighbors in a rural community discovered that a business was set to open nearby that would take in used car batteries for recycling — mainly to extract the lead therein, which is valuable in Brazil because it has no domestic primary source for the metal.

    The locals don’t want it there.

    The reasons cited by locals vary. Some of the owners of nearby lands fret that the “factory” will contaminate the surrounding valley lands and nearby river. One farmer mentions that livestock tends to wander, so there is a chance that the cows will graze on lead-contaminated grasses and give contaminated milk. Another person asserts that the “factory” is in “an environmentally protected zone.”

    In the video it is suggested that such recyclers seek out sites outside small rural towns (implying that such municipalities will be lax about enforcement and welcome investment), import workers from out-of-state who worry more about their wages than workplace health conditions, operate for a few years and then move on.

    Vânia Spagolla, identified as the recycler’s lawyer, says all the requisite environmental studies were done, and by experts registered as such with environmental authorities of Paraná. The operation will use all the cleanest technologies available, she insists.

    At a hostile town meeting called about the plant’s opening, company director José Rodrigues asserts that his company is taking all the necessary measures to minimize any [environmental, health] risks. “I ask you, if not [recycled] by a lead factory, where are you going to put that battery — in the street, in the river? Wouldn’t that be worse?” He ends up having to be escorted out of the meeting with police protection.

    Maria Josefa Yabe, a chemistry professor, argues to the camera that no matter how well the company operates, there will always be some contamination surrounding a battery recycling installation. [As she is speaking, the viewer is cognizant of the “plant” over her shoulders, which is largely without walls, making one wonder about containment and just how “clean” the technologies are that the lawyer mentioned.]

    The field reporter mentions how another lead recycler was eventually shut down after operating five years and receiving six operating authorizations from environmental authorities. High levels of contamination were found in the surrounding area, including in children’s blood.*

    When the TV reporters bring up the case with the President of the state environment enforcement entity, the Paraná Environment Institute (Instituto Ambiental do ParanáIAP), Vitor Hugo Burko, says the law allows these type of companies as long as they meet the environmental criteria and submit their studies and get their license. In the case of battery recycling, the technical criteria are very rigorous, he insists. If we find that their operational practices are not adequate, we’ll close them.

    When the reporter notes that lead is hazardous and a potential risk to the area and waters near the recycling plant, Burko responds that nearly every human activity poses some sort of environmental risk, and the best that authorities can do is identify them and minimize them. To eliminate risk I could ban everything today! But better not to be ruled by emotion, passion. Do things that are technically and legally correct, in a system that is “absolutely” transparent. Some companies submit documentation that is inconsistent, technically unsound and IAP will not authorize their license. But this company’s studies and license were in order.

    He also mentioned that IAP will be launching a new initiative utilizing volunteers to keep check on industries, and that this installation will be watched. [yes, folks, I intend to do an upcoming Temas Blog entry on the idea of using volunteer inspectors.]

    Lastly in the heat of the exchange Burko also resorts to the “lesser of two evils” argument, asking that if used batteries do not go to a licensed recycler, then what happens to them? They end up in rivers, contaminating the water, or in some corner of the house or yard, contaminating the soil.

    After this report aired, some environmentalists in Paraná reacted angrily to the IAP’s dismissal of concerns about the installation, labeling Burko “the enemy of the environment” and calling for his resignation.


    What’s my take on it?

    Well, most everybody has a grain of truth in what they say. The recycler probably did pick the spot he chose because he knew he would not get an environmental license in a major city like Curitiba, where NGOs and community groups would have organized early to oppose it. The company may indeed have done all the right studies, using the right experts and filing the proper paperwork.

    That does not mean that the resulting operation will follow the license’s requisites (and what little I can see of it from a distance, I have to wonder), making close and periodic follow-up checks by technically competent inspectors critical. And the location is a bit dicey if indeed it is close to pastureland, a river and/or aquifer and a designated ecological protection area (there seems to be some confusion about that last point). Trouble is, IAP and local municipalities have a shortage of qualified inspectors (IAP only has 180 to cover the entire state) and tight budgets.

    Is it better than no car battery recycling at all? That depends on how it’s done. If this new Paraná operation is as sloppy as the one closed down in the Haina section of Santo Domingo while I lived in the Dominican Republic [and ten years later, still is not cleaned up!], then yes, it could be worse than no recycling at all. The batteries always could be collected and interred in concrete bunkers away from major water sources, and that might be better than soil, aquifers, livestock, workers and nearby residents contaminated by lead from improper recycling techniques. Bad environmental practices done in the name of recycling, tarnishing recycling’s reputation, can be worse than no recycling at all.

    Looking on the bright side, the mere fact that you can view a news report such as this one says something about how far environment has progressed as an issue with the Brazilian public. In this one video, you see neighbors organizing, reporters holding state officials accountable on camera, and a town meeting where company officials have to explain themselves to townspeople. Maybe this recycler will stray from good environmental practice and maybe the IAP will not scrutinize it close and often enough, who knows, time will tell. But it won’t be because the local media and community didn’t put them on notice.

    — Keith R

    * A similar case of contamination and lead poisoning, but far greater, cause in Brazil’s Northeast by another “battery recycler” (I prefer to what many of these operations do “lead mining”) during the early 1990s resulted in the National Environment Council (CONAMA) eliminating the exception to the hazardous waste import rule that had permitted used lead-acid car battery imports if intended for recycling.

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