2012-01-11 "Redwood City metal recycler cited for polluting bay water" by Will Kane and Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a Redwood City metal recycling company to stop loading shredded metal onto ships bound for China after inspectors found PCBs, mercury, lead and other dangerous pollutants leaching into San Francisco Bay.
Sims Metal Management, one of the largest metal shredders in the Bay Area, was accused Tuesday of violating federal clean water laws and ordered to halt loading operations until workers seal a conveyor belt that was spilling toxic metal powder.
The Sims Metal scrap yard, which leases a parcel of land from the Port of Redwood City, dismantles cars, metal products and home appliances and loads the material onto ships. EPA inspectors discovered during two visits that the company was discharging PCBs, mercury, lead, copper and zinc into Redwood Creek, which flows into the bay.
The toxic pollution escaped because there was no protective covering on the conveyor belt that was used to move the material from the wharf to the ships, said Jared Blumenfeld, the agency's regional administrator. As a result, the metal dust blew off the top or fell off the sides of the belt and found its way into the creek, he said.
The work, he said, "is not done in a way that protects the environment."
Sims, which claims to be the largest metals and electronics recycler in the world, loaded an average of 22,000 tons of shredded material per vessel onto 20 ships between July 2010 and June 2011. That material was sent to ports around the world, including China, where the metals are melted down and used to manufacture new products that are often sold in the United States.
Soil samples collected from around the plant in August showed unusually high levels of toxins and heavy metals, said EPA officials. Levels of toxic PCBs in the creek were 10,000 times what would be expected in soil, while lead and copper were 10 to 15 times greater than acceptable levels.
Inspectors also found shredding residue, scrap metal and other industrial debris in soils and sediment that could come into contact with bay water.
Daniel Strechay, spokesman for Sims Metal Management, said the shredder has been operating for decades without problems.
"The area of the port that is the focus of EPA's order is located in a shared-use ship-loading area outside Sims' shredder facility, and is not affected by the day-to-day shredder operations," Strechay said. "Steps are currently being taken to control any debris from the company's ship-loading operations."
It isn't the first time the company has been accused of spewing toxins. The recycling company was cited by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District after a 2007 fire at the plant sent towering columns of smoke into the sky. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accused the scrap yard of allowing fibrous automobile shredder residue to blow or drift into wetlands around Bair Island, 800 feet downwind of the facility.
The manager of the preserve said toxins, including mercury, lead, PCBs and petroleum hydrocarbons, were endangering wildlife, including the federally listed California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse, and delaying the proposed addition of 140 acres to the refuge.
Strechay said company officials are doing a survey to determine what material is on Bair Island.
"We will work with all affected parties to remedy the conditions identified by EPA," he said. "As recyclers, the health and protection of the environment is core to our business, and we will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that."
Blumenfeld said Sims is cooperating with inspectors.
"I would put them in the top category of people we've worked with," he said. "They really want to do the right thing."
Sims Metal is expected to submit a cleanup plan by Monday, well before the 30-day deadline, Blumenfeld said. The company will have to pay for the cleanup of all toxic materials from Redwood Creek within one year, implement storm-water pollution prevention measures and sample discharges every month throughout the winter and spring, according to the order.
"I would put them in the top category of people we've worked with. They really want to do the right thing."