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EPA becomes border cop for recycling

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The EPA finalized new regulations on Friday to lend its environmental expertise to the issue of cross-border security for transporting hazardous waste between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. (AP Photo)

Recycling waste is supposed to be good for the environment, right?

Well, it can be a source of potential danger by posing a real border security threat if mishandled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

That's why the EPA finalized new regulations on Friday to lend its environmental expertise to the issue of cross-border security for transporting hazardous waste between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The new rule, which goes into effect Dec. 31, is part of a major update to the United States' border security program being spearheaded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The rule adopts strict international standards for controlling cross-border shipments of hazardous, even radioactive, waste between the U.S. and other countries, although 90 percent of the shipments from the U.S. are to Mexico and Canada.

Friday's final rule will give customs and border protection agents final sign-off on allowing companies to import or export recyclable waste.

Mathy Stanislaus, the head of the EPA's emergency management office, said the rule is meant to protect communities from mismanagement practices that could harm people on both sides of the border.

"This new rule will provide greater protection to communities from mismanagement of hazardous waste when it is shipped across multiple countries to be disposed or recycled," Stanislaus said.

Problems arise if spent lead-acid batteries, or some other form of toxic or radioactive waste, arrive at a facility not equipped to recycle or deal with the waste. Stanislaus wrote in a blog that abandoned waste can lead to spills or contamination of nearby communities, presenting real health hazards.

"As the assistant administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management, I am committed to making sure that hazardous waste entering or leaving the United States is safely and correctly handled," he said. "That is why I am so proud of this new rule."

In the run-up to Friday's final regulation, a number of industry coalitions had opposed the safety changes as duplicative, increasing the cost of doing business, and ignoring the serious problems with Mexico's environmental record when it comes to battery recycling.

The Federal Recycling and Remediation Coalition, representing hazardous waste generators directly affected by the rule-making, said the rule would be duplicative while adding unnecessary costs through a blanket rule-making.

"While this revision would result in one set of requirements for all transboundary shipments, it does so by unnecessarily increasing the requirements applicable to the vast majority of those shipments," the coalition said in comments submitted in December. The regulations were proposed one year ago.

"Therefore, the FRRC encourages EPA to withdraw the Export-Import Revisions Proposal or revise the proposal to maintain the current requirements applicable to transboundary shipments of hazardous waste and wastes subject to alternate requirements between the U.S., Canada and Mexico," the group said.

Friday's final regulations do not appear to address the coalition's concerns.

The Revere Smelting & Refining Corp. said it appreciated the EPA's attempt at protecting the environment, but the rules will do little in tracking cargoes of lead acid batteries to Mexico, which has been a major concern for years.

"Regrettably, however, the rule falls short of meeting this goal, particularly with respect to exports of lead acid batteries to Mexico and other countries whose substandard environmental, health and safety regulatory requirements are unable to ensure that secondary lead smelters operate in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment," the company said.

It said the EPA ignored major recommendations made to resolve the problems with Mexican smelters, who are in violation of North American environmental standards, and recommends going back to the drawing board.