In late December, one company, Dallas-based RSR Corp., urged that the three nations take “robust and immediate action to halt battery exports.”
“Allowing the tsunami of lead acid batteries to continue to be exported to Mexican facilities sentences those working in or living near these facilities to a lifetime of increased lead burden in their bodies,” RSR chief executive Robert E. Finn said in a Dec. 21 letter to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
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 Inc., 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.
Mexican activists say they are concerned about what they see as a double standard but have been unable to gather data from the company.
“When we asked for information about emissions and lead blood levels, they never responded to us,” said Marisa Jacott, head of Fronteras Comunes, a nonprofit group that monitors toxic waste in Mexico.
Jacott 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.
“There are few who have the resources to pay for tests of lead levels in their children,” she said, adding that at health clinics, “sometimes they just diagnose the kids with attention-deficit disorder or they blame the mothers for the kids being dull.”
Lead particles can escape from recycling plants in exhaust gases, dust emissions and in water discharges. Workers can take lead particles home on their clothing or their cars.
The director of global communications for Johnson Controls, Rebecca K. 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.”
She added in an email that as of January, the factory “has had an average of 93 percent employees with a blood-lead level below 20 micrograms per deciliter, representing world-class blood levels.”
Citing a “highly competitive environment with this business,” Fitzgerald said the company “unfortunately cannot share at this time” more precise data about emissions from the plant.
Johnson Controls has run into problems with excessive emissions before. A year ago, Chinese authorities shut the company’s Shanghai battery manufacturing plant following reports that 49 children in the area had elevated blood-lead levels.
Gottesfeld, the occupational safety activist, disputed that Johnson Controls had reached adequate safety levels at the plant in Cienega de Flores.