Environment groups in the US have expressed concern with what they see as GM’s reckless claim that it is not responsible for funding the recycling of potentially hazardous mercury switches from its old vehicles – more of which are being scrapped under ‘cash for clunkers’.

The groups are demanding that the company continue meeting its obligations to fund legacy mercury recovery costs from GM end-of-life vehicles.

In the wake of General Motors‘ bankruptcy and reorganisation, funds for a partnership that takes mercury-containing parts out of vehicles being scrapped could be drying up.
The End of Life Vehicle Solutions (ELVS), a US auto industry partnership, was created in 2005 to support the removal of mercury switches from vehicles before they get shredded. If left in the vehicles when they are destroyed, the mercury leaks out, posing a danger for humans, animals and the environment, it is claimed.

ELVS works with the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program, and has collected 2.5 million mercury switches and 5,600 pounds of mercury. ELVS is scheduled to run until 2017.

More than half of the 36 million mercury switches that were used in vehicles in the ’80s and ’90s are in GM vehicles, and GM was the biggest participant in the program before its bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring with government aid.

However, GM says it is now a new company after the restructuring, and since it, in its current form, has not made or makes vehicles with mercury switches, it has no responsibility to take part in the program. That responsibility is put on Motors Liquidation Co., the old version of GM, which is made up of the company’s liabilities and underperforming assets.

“GM should not be hiding behind a bankruptcy proceeding as an excuse for not meeting its on-going obligation to fund a vital program for keeping mercury out of the environment,” said Charles Griffith, Director of the Ecology Center’s Clean Car Campaign.

According to the industry estimates, 54% of all vehicles containing mercury are GM models. Therefore, it appears that GM is responsible for funding half the costs of the industry collection program nationally, the eco-groups maintain.

GM’s lack of financial support detracts further from an overall lack of financing necessary for the national program to operate effectively, say advocates. Last month, a separate fund that helped pay financial incentives to auto dismantlers for turning in switches ran out of cash.

It also alleged that GM has denied responsibility for paying state mandated incentives for the collection of auto mercury switches. Ten states have passed mercury switch legislation requiring automakers to pay for switch recycling and provide incentives to auto dismantlers for collecting switches.

By not paying bounties mandated by states, GM is also jeopardizing the effectiveness of state programs as well, say advocates.

“GM’s latest manoeuvre throws a monkey wretch into state programs– if they stop paying bounties,” said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project.
“With Cash for Clunkers adding more mercury-containing vehicles to the end-of-life pool, it’s extremely unfortunate timing for the major financial supporter to be walking away from the table,” says Griffith.

Mercury switches were used to operate hood and trunk convenience lights in vehicles made before 2004, when automakers stopped their use. Upwards of 100 million of these devices were used in vehicles.

Unless they are removed first, the mercury from auto switches is released to the air when vehicles are recycled at steel mills, leading to pollution.