How bad is Tesla’s hazardous waste problem in California?

Allegations that Tesla is mishandling hazardous waste point to a system flaw at the company’s California facilities. This was not a simple accident or one-off event.

No fewer than 25 provinces sued Tesla this week for allegedly illegally dumping hazardous waste. Within days, the Elon Musk-led company agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the lawsuit that claims the company “intentionally” and “negligently” disposed of materials that should have been handled with care.

Waste management experts tell us The edge that a large company like Tesla should have known better. In addition to the problems the company faces in California, the company may even have run afoul of federal regulations governing hazardous waste disposal.

“That’s pretty egregious in my book.”

California counties are accusing Tesla of violating state health and safety codes by disposing of or “causing” it.[ing] the disposal of hazardous waste in places that are not actually authorized to receive the materials. The lawsuit claims the company threw some of it into dumpsters or compactors; the waste could then end up in a landfill where hazardous substances are not allowed to be dumped. It also says Tesla “failed to determine” whether the waste produced at its facilities was hazardous, “failed to properly mark, label and store hazardous waste” at its facilities , and failed to comply with record-keeping requirements or properly train employees. how you handle the materials.

“That, in my opinion, is pretty egregious,” said Christopher Kohler, an adjunct instructor at Indiana University and an expert on hazardous waste, environmental remediation and chemical hygiene. “These rules and regulations have been in place for almost 50 years, and they should know better by now.”

The complaint names 101 facilities in California that generated hazardous waste, including: used lubricating oils, brake fluids, lead-acid batteries, aerosol cans, antifreeze, waste solvents, paint, electronic waste and other “contaminated waste.”

According to Kohler, these are fairly common types of waste. Nevertheless, their disposal is regulated due to the risks these substances can pose if misused. Lead and chlorinated solvents are toxic, oils are flammable and acids are corrosive, Kohler points out.

Investigators from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office began “undercover inspections” of dumpsters at Tesla car service centers in 2018. They found that “the illegal disposal of numerous used hazardous automotive parts (i.e. lubricating oil, brake cleaners, lead acid and other batteries), aerosol cans, antifreeze, waste solvents and other cleaning products, electronic waste, paint waste and debris contaminated with the above) ,” the district attorney’s office said. Afterwards, investigators from other provinces also began searching Tesla’s waste and found similar “unlawful disposals.” At Tesla’s Fremont factory, investigators also found weld spatter, paint mixture waste cups and primer-contaminated wipes/residue that had been unlawfully disposed of in the trash.

Lead and chlorinated solvents are toxic, oils are flammable and acids are corrosive

“I have no idea of ​​the motives or reason for the improper removal. It appears to be a failure in a hazardous waste management plan,” wrote Treavor Boyer, chair of the environmental engineering program at Arizona State University. The edge in an email.

Large companies typically have a waste professional on hand to determine how to handle these types of substances in their factories, Kohler says The edge. He says it appears Tesla failed to do this and failed to implement proper company policies and procedures in its service centers.

Take, for example, lead-acid batteries from motor vehicles, which are mainly composed of – you guessed it – lead and acid. In most states it is illegal to dump them in the trash. They can corrode and release lead, which can escape from a landfill and then contaminate the environment and even drinking water sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Leaking batteries can also pose risks to workers at landfills, incinerators and transfer stations. Burning batteries can even release lead into the air. Lead is a known neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for children.

Lead-acid batteries in particular need to be recycled and the lead can be reused in new batteries. Other materials may need to be sent to a hazardous waste landfill, where the double plastic lining is in place, as at a typical sanitary landfill, to protect groundwater from anything that might otherwise leak into it. In addition, materials must be treated and exhibit the characteristics of being “non-hazardous” before they can even go to a hazardous waste landfill. It takes extra work to make these types of arrangements, which can be more expensive than processing less risky waste.

When it comes to Tesla’s handling of these types of materials in California: “The situation appears to be a violation of RCRA [short for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] that is the federal regulations for hazardous waste management,” Boyer wrote. However, California mandates are stricter than federal waste regulations.

The edge contacted the EPA to ask whether it is investigating Tesla for violating the law and, if so, whether the company may face federal fines. An EPA spokesperson said in an email: “Due to ongoing litigation, the EPA cannot comment on this matter.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment from The edge; it did not acknowledge any wrongdoing on its part in the settlement.

The settlement includes a five-year order during which Tesla will have to comply with measures including annual third-party waste audits and mandatory employee training. The San Francisco district attorney’s office says Tesla “cooperated” with the investigation and “took steps to improve compliance with environmental protection laws brought to its attention by prosecutors.” After Tesla was notified of the problems, they began quarantining waste containers at all service centers and screening them for hazardous waste before sending the waste to the landfill.

Other automakers have poor hazardous waste records

In 2022, Tesla agreed to pay $275,000 to settle with the EPA over Clean Air Act violations at its Fremont factory. Tesla also had to pay a $31,000 fine as part of a settlement with the agency in 2019 for storing hazardous waste at its Fremont factory without the required permit.

The EPA also found that Tesla did not have enough aisle space for the safe movement of personnel through the main area where it stored hazardous waste, and that it violated air emissions standards for three leaking transmission lines. It also found two open 55-gallon hazardous waste containers with no “gasket or closing mechanism,” and that the company failed to “promptly clean up” flammable paint and solvent mixtures leaking from transmission lines or pumps.

Other automakers have poor hazardous waste records. GM agreed to pay a $773 million settlement in 2010 with the U.S., 14 states and the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe over “environmental liabilities,” including hazardous waste on its properties. In 2022, New Jersey sued Ford for dumping toxic paint sludge and contaminating “hundreds of acres of land, water, wetlands” and state-recognized tribal lands of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.

“Today’s settlement against Tesla, Inc. serves to provide citizens across the state with a cleaner environment by preventing the pollution of our precious natural resources when hazardous waste is mismanaged and improperly disposed of,” San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said in a news release Thursday. .

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