Redwood City Heavy Metal: A Hard Road to Cleaning Up Recyclers
Sims Metal Management facility in Redwood City. (Sims Metal Management)
Just off U.S. 101 in Redwood City on Seaport Boulevard, a truck carrying stacks of flattened cars rumbles eastward, toward the bay. Moments later, a different truck lugs a covered mound of dirt debris in the opposite direction.
The eastbound truck is delivering discarded vehicles to a Sims Metal Management facility, the regional branch of a multinational metal recycling company that operates a 13-acre plant at the Port of Redwood City. Sims purchases metal waste like cars, kitchen appliances and crop irrigation pipes, feeds them into a metal shredder and then sells the scrap overseas, where it will be used in manufacturing.
The truck exiting Sims is disposing of non-metal shredder residue, en route to a private landfill far outside county lines. This residue looks like dirt, but is really a blend of plastics, rubber and fabrics that are coated with fine bits of metal from the shredding process.
These two vehicles represent the input and output of an intricate metal recycling operation.
Metal recyclers in California export more than 7 million tons of material a year. The two metal firms currently operating in the Bay Area — Sims in Redwood City and Schnitzer Steel in Oakland — contribute around 600,000 tons a year.
While metal recyclers provide benefits by conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the toxic nature of the materials being handled poses a dilemma for the industry and its regulators. When not contained properly, metals such as lead, mercury, copper, zinc and cadmium can have serious health effects for people and wildlife.
The industry’s method of managing the risks associated with these metals is under close scrutiny today. There are several agencies responsible for ensuring that metal recyclers abide by state and federal regulations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Toxic Substances Control, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
In the past two years, regulators have fined Sims millions of dollars for violating various state and federal laws at its Redwood City plant. The records supporting the fines describe years or even decades of violations and illustrate a broader story about the difficulty of regulating the metal shredding industry.
A new law that took effect this year may push more stringent regulation for parts of the metal shredding process, though some environmental advocates question how effective the law will be.
Officials from Sims Metal Management declined to be interviewed in detail for this story.
Jill Rodby, Sims’ public relations and government affairs manager, pointed the authors to public statements made at the time regarding specific settlements or fines. In general, these statements convey that the company intends to comply with the relevant regulations moving forward. Rodby also provided information about the timeline of improvements being made to the Redwood City facility.
Noxious Smoke in the Air
The Sims plant drew widespread attention in late 2013, when two fires broke out at the facility in less than two months and spread noxious black smoke over the Peninsula. Redwood City issued shelter-in-place warnings during the first fire, on Nov. 10, and advised citizens to stay indoors and close air-intake systems during the second fire, Dec. 17.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s incident reports on the fires note the district’s ambient air-quality monitors detected elevated levels of fine particulates consistent with the smoke plumes, but do not further specify what particulates were found.
According to Thomas Cahill, professor emeritus of physics at UC Davis, the kind of smoke produced by the fires sometimes contains sharply elevated amounts of ultra-fine metals, which can cause serious damage to the cardiovascular system as they accumulate in the lungs.
Cahill, whose experience with aerosol pollution spans several decades, happened to be measuring air particulates near another shredder in Oakland during the first fire. His equipment picked up the smoke emanating from the Sims facility.
“No one in the world was looking at that smoke at the time,” Cahill said. “The fact that we found it was a surprise. Clearly, the local air district did not know and we found out by accident.”
Cahill said he is not able to divulge what he found in the smoke because the results are currently being used in litigation -- though not against Sims.
However, he expressed concern that the regulatory agencies were not more closely monitoring the effect of the fires on air quality in the surrounding communities.
Heavy Metals in the Water
Beginning in the early 1990s, Sims operated its ship-loading conveyor without adequate pollution controls to prevent materials from falling into Redwood Creek, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the company. Until the conveyor was enclosed almost two decades later, Sims allowed scrap metal and other materials to fall into the creek, according to the DOJ action.
The suit also alleged that for nearly a decade, through 2012, Sims allowed pollutants to flow into Redwood Creek and Redwood City's storm sewer system every day it rained more than one-tenth of an inch.
In fact, the suit said, pollution was detected by Sims' own 2003 study of the shoreline near the conveyor system, which found sediment samples with levels of copper, lead, nickel and zinc that exceeded California safety limits.
According to David Wampler, an EPA Clean Water Act Enforcement officer, his agency did not know about this study until it launched an investigation of the facility for other violations in 2011. That probe led the EPA to order Sims to correct several Clean Water Act violations.
The company settled the 2014 lawsuit, paid a $189,500 fine, and entered into a consent decree that required it to analyze sediments adjacent to its ship-loading facility and undertake a cleanup if concentrations of heavy metals or other toxic material exceeds quality standards.
Sims also comes under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board, which in 2011 conducted its first formal inspection of the recycling facility in 11 years.
The long time between inspections is due in part to the sheer number of facilities that fall under the board’s jurisdiction, said Thomas Mumley, the regional board's assistant executive officer.
“The type of investigations that have gone on at Sims are more the exception than the rule,” Mumley said. “There’s just a lot of places. Ten percent are inspected [annually] in general and probably a smaller percent are targeted for more detailed investigations.”
Wampler noted a similar situation when discussing the EPA’s inspection coverage.
“There are hundreds of thousands of facilities that are potential candidates for inspections across our country for Clean Water Act industrial stormwater," he said, "and choosing which ones we go to is an art and a science.”
Gray Fluff on the Flats
The Sims plant is next to two other properties: Bair Island, which is part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and salt flats owned by Cargill.
In early 2011, Cargill became concerned about a fluffy gray substance accumulating on its property and reported the issue to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains Bair Island. According to Mendel Stewart, manager of the refuge at the time, the Fish and Wildlife officials contacted Sims about the fluff and discovered that it was called "light fibrous material" -- also known as auto shredder residue.
The substance is a byproduct of the metal shredding process and is comprised of non-metal materials that go through the shredder, such as rubber and auto fuel. It can contain levels of metals that exceed the regulatory thresholds, as well as potentially toxic chemical compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The Fish and Wildlife Service tested the wetlands of Bair Island and found elevated levels of metals and trace levels of PCBs and phthalates -- the latter a chemical used in making plastics.
In May 2011, Fish and Wildlife notified Sims of its concerns. Representatives from the the agency visited the Sims facility in September 2011, but by December had not taken action to resolve the issue. Eventually, the company responded to the complaints by modifying the Redwood City facility layout, installing a large overhead sprinkler system and using water trucks to keep down dust, according to a March 2013 Fish and Wildlife report.
However, Sims continued to allow light fibrous material to be released from the plant, according to a civil environmental enforcement action that the state Department of Toxic Substances Control filed against the company in November 2014.
Sims settled the case for $2.4 million on the day the action was filed, but admitted no wrongdoing. As part of the settlement, Sims was required to make several capital improvements to the facility, such as fully enclosing the metal shredder, by the end of last month. Sims has completed several upgrades and received an extension for some other work, “primarily completion of the shredder enclosure, for which work has already begun,” Rodby said in an email.
Attempt to Strengthen Regulations
A new state law, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Peninsula Democrat, addresses some of the issues with regulating metal shredders -- particularly the classification and regulation of the 700,000 tons of residue from the shredding process that goes into the state's landfills every year. Once it's in a landfill, this waste may contaminate groundwater and stormwater runoff.
Hill said he found after the 2013 fires at Sims that regulation of the recycling industry had been largely ineffective.
“I found that basically the industry has not been regulated,” Hill said. “[Regulators] have been trying to regulate it since the 1980s. I felt there was some legislation necessary.”
The result, SB1249, revokes regulators' earlier decisions to treat metal shredder waste as "non-hazardous" and requires the Department of Toxic Substance Control to review standards for classifying and handling the waste.
Whether the law will lead to new regulations is still an open question. The department can choose to maintain current standards for auto shredder residue if its analysis proves that these standards do not pose a significant potential hazard to human health or the environment.
Despite the legislative action, industry followers are dubious of the the agency’s ability to improve its decades-old policies regarding auto shredder residue.
“I’m always skeptical,” Hill said. “Especially with the DTSC because historically they have not acted, I believe, responsibly in their oversight of facilities like this.”
Len Keck, project manager and owner’s representative at Westfield Consulting, a firm that advises recycling companies, questions whether the DTSC will be able to successfully regulate auto shredder residue, even though this new law gives the agency more authority.
“Ever since the 1990s, the DTSC has wanted to regulate it [auto shredder residue],” Keck said. “And it is always going to be next year, or six months from now. I don’t know if this is real, or if this is one more effort at marching in place.”
Nerd Box: To examine the issue of metal recycling regulation, a team of three Stanford students reviewed inspection data and legal records from five different government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Department of Toxic Substances, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the San Francisco District Attorney. Outside environmental and industry experts helped reporters interpret the data and documents and provided commentary about the state of the metal recycling regulation system. Some of the records were available on the web, while others required public records requests. The measurements of metal levels near Sims Metal Management in Redwood City were obtained from facility inspection reports conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the San Francisco Water Quality Control Board.