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The Hazards of Metal Shredding near Bellingham: Cancer, Pollution and Fire

The passage of time alone will not save Bellingham from this dangerous situation. Only strong and persistent action on the part of its citizens will be effective against this menace.

The passage of time alone will not save Bellingham from this dangerous situation. Only strong and persistent action on the part of its citizens will be effective against this menace.

[Our Guest Writer, Scott Jones, is a Bellingham resident along with his family.  He is President of the South Hill Neighborhood Association. He founded and ran Beyond Clothing, a custom American made clothing company, for 17 years. He is a local advocate for Affordable Housing, Food Security, and a high quality of life for Bellingham and Whatcom residents.]

Lead, Heavy Metals, and Toxic Chemicals 

Just northwest of Bellingham on the border of the city, ABC Recycling, a Canadian company, is planning an industrial metal shredder. Crushed Canadian cars and appliances will be trucked down across the border at a rate of 40 trucks a day, Monday through Friday, 'standard business hours.’ After being shredded, their scrap cargo will pass through the Birchwood and Alderwood neighborhoods, across downtown, and finally be dumped onto the storage pile at the Waterfront. All the while, the possibly toxic waste will go to Whatcom landfills.

Lead in pencils, paint, and most types of gasoline has become a distant memory, so we might have assumed that the harmful effects of lead poisoning were a thing of the past. However, even though new products no longer contain lead, many older lead-laden cars and appliances are just now finding their way into the waste stream. It's not just lead; other chemicals, when heated for shredding, produce gases like PCBs and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These substances potentially harm organs and the nervous system and are linked to elevated risks of cancer.

Inside that 1970s Chevy in your driveway, or the classic fridge in your basement, are chemicals known as 'heavy metals,' like lead, that are safely contained. However, when these vehicles and appliances are crushed, stored in large quantities, shredded, and then transported to open-air storage sites by the thousands, the release of VOCs and heavy metal pollution can become extremely hazardous, particularly to children.

Environmental Concerns and Legal Oversight

There are state agencies in place to keep heavy industrial facilities such as this in compliance. But when California calls a pollutant a hazardous waste or carcinogen, but Washington law does not, our agencies' hands are tied. ABC will continue being allowed to pollute, and our children will get lead poisoning, or cancer, years later. Carcinogens know no law.

Even when Washington does crack down, metal recycling is so profitable that some shredding companies simply accept the state fines as a cost of doing business. South Seattle, a vulnerable neighborhood similar to Birchwood and Alderwood, recently fined a shredder company an additional $90,000, a laughably small amount, for not 'improving its pollution control measures' within set deadlines. This was after they had already sued the company for polluting and won a $1.2 million settlement. 

ABC Recycling says they are good neighbors, and that seems to be the case in Canada where all they do is collect metal. In Bellingham though, where they are naïve in all things shipping and shredding, that good neighborly vibe seems to be missing. Their PR guy spews falsehoods at City Council meetings, while discounting concerns of air, water, and noise pollution. The company is currently in violation of a wastewater permit which would have prevented the discharge of iron oxide to Bellingham Bay, near protected eel grass beds that provide salmon habitat. At the same time, they are moving quietly ahead with plans for an industrial metal shredder surrounded by Bellingham residents.

The recycling company says they will follow all laws and regulations. But are those laws and regulations enough to keep our neighborhoods and children safe? When a crushed Canadian 'dry' car—one that has been emptied of fluids—is not dry enough, or an errant lithium battery occasionally catches fire, what toxins will escape from the shredder? ABC is already in a multi year Department of Ecology violation of wastewater regulations. Even with the fully enclosed facility ABC has promised, heavy metals will migrate out on tires and truck beds, depositing those metals through neighborhoods. There is an elementary school a third of a mile from the shredder and 1000 feet from the proposed route.

EPA Warning of Metal Shredding

In July 2021, the EPA issued an Enforcement Alert after "identify[ing] Clean Air Act violations at metal recycling facilities that operate auto and scrap metal shredders, causing excess emissions of air pollution." The alert continues that, "the process generates emissions of VOCs, particulate matter, and hazardous air pollutants including lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury, and organic pollutants."

While metal recycling plays a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions during metal production, the toxic nature of the metal shredding process must make communities rethink their location. “[T]he total risk from these area sources ranged from an increased cancer risk 1 case in 1,000,000 to 8 cases in 10,000 depending upon the facility.” 1 in 10,000 or higher is unacceptable for the EPA. From peer reviewed studies that recognize the dangers of heavy metal release and dangerous amounts of VOCs, to EPA warnings, public fines, and private lawsuits, it is impossible to trust a project so dangerous from a company whose only experience in metal recycling is collection, not shredding.

ABC Recycling is a ‘neighbor’ who has shown little interest in the local community except as a location to pilfer profits. Bellingham and Whatcom residents must not sit idle. At the Waterfront, a scale and a temporary office on wheels was the extent of any needed building permits for the Metal Pile.  It seems that SEPA, and any Environmental Impact Statement, was skirted in the process. The permits needed for the Metal Shredder though, must be extensive. Based on the way ABC has attempted to circumnavigate Bellingham Municipal Code at the Waterfront, we expect they will push for a Type 1 (22.05.020) permit application: Administrative Decision with No Public Notice or Hearing. Through law or public interest, and due to the extreme nature of the activity, you must fight for the permit to be designated a Type 4: County Council Decision with Public Notice and Public Hearing.

This, though, is only the beginning. With thousands of affected residents, the only time to work together is now. 

The Many or the Few?

Bellingham and Whatcom County are at a crossroads. This a beautiful place to live. However, with its proximity to the ocean, the land is prone to overuse by industry and the environment and local residents suffer. Through planned developments such as the Bellingham Waterfront, the community is looking forward to clean industry with living wage jobs. As was found with the Metal Pile though, these plans can be skirted for the benefit of the few. Most of these “few” are not local. So the community must ask itself: Are we looking for a buck for a “few,” or a sustainable future for all?

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