SACRAMENTO — At a recycling plant in San Pedro and five other similar operations around California, giant shredding machines annually reduce 1.3 million junk cars, refrigerators and other appliances into fist-sized chunks of metal.
Valuable scrap that contains iron is separated so it can be turned back into steel. Hunks of aluminum, copper and other alloys are pulled out for reprocessing.
But the leftovers -- bits of glass, fiber, rubber, engine fluids, dirt and plastics -- are getting new attention from state toxic substance regulators, and the $500-million-a-year shredding industry is fighting back.
For years, auto-shredding companies have been hauling tons of these treated leftovers, known in the industry as fluff, to municipal landfills under a state variance granted more than 20 years ago.
State officials now say they are concerned that residue from heavy metals in the fluff could seep from landfills into groundwater, while airborne metal-laden particles could endanger workers at recycling plants and dumps and people living in neighborhoods near such facilities.
The industry maintains that the 700,000 tons of material it delivers to landfills each year pose no threat to health or safety.
A change in state policy, if finalized, could mean that fluff may need to be transported under more strict conditions to special hazardous waste disposal sites, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
"We are of the opinion that the way cars are made is quite a bit different than 20 years ago," said Colleen Heck, a department senior staff counsel. "We're seeing increased amounts of lead, zinc and cadmium in the waste stream, so we think it's no longer appropriate to allow them to operate" the same way they have in the past.
The department, which originally put the shredding industry on notice of a likely change in September, has twice granted extensions. The current deadline for making a final decision is June 30.
Recyclers dismiss the health concerns as baseless. They fear that being subjected to more stringent regulation could double or triple disposal costs, according to an industry-sponsored economic analysis. The proposed rules unintentionally could create more pollution by spurring recyclers to truck their fluff to distant, out-of-state dumps that have no restrictions on what they take.
"Given the ranges of exposure we are seeing, it doesn't cause any threats to human health or the environment," said Margaret Rosegay, an attorney for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group that represents California auto shredding companies. "There's no basis for changing the regulatory structure that's existed for 25 years."
Current fluff disposal standards already are the toughest in the nation, Rosegay said. California is the only state that requires fluff to be treated before it's sent to municipal landfills.
Recyclers say they treat the fluff by coating it with cement during a chemical reaction that "fixes" the heavy metals and prevents seeping or leaching.
After treatment, the fluff is hauled to landfills, where it is spread 6 inches deep over each day's dumpings to tamp down odors and keep birds, rats and other animals from getting at the garbage.
Treated fluff is an economical alternative to using sometimes scarce dirt to cover landfills, recyclers argue.
Environmental groups, which applaud the department's push for more stringent shredding standards, question the safety of using treated fluff as landfill daily cover.
"If you put hazardous waste on a landfill, it will ultimately make its way into our water supply," said Bill Magavern, California director for the Sierra Club. "I don't think there's been sufficient testing to show that it won't be a problem."
To underscore his concern, Magavern noted that the San Pedro auto shredding plant and another facility in Anaheim, owned by SA Recycling, were served with a search warrant in August as part of a criminal investigation by the L.A. County district attorney's office and state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
The search warrant signed by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge asked for information about a reported explosion that damaged an air pollution control system and allowed the discharge of allegedly hazardous particles. The warrant also looked for evidence of the illegal transportation of hazardous waste to an unpermitted facility.
The district attorney's office confirmed that the search warrant was served but declined to comment on its continuing investigation.
The investigation is based on the testimony of "disgruntled former employees" of a predecessor of SA Recycling, said Robert Hoffman, an attorney for the company. The probe has nothing to do with the state's proposal to increase regulation of auto shredder fluff, he said.