• Aug 29th 2009 at 8:42AM
  • 15
Here's the problem: General Motors went through the bankruptcy earlier this year and was able to pawn off a lot of unwanted things onto a new company called, originally, General Motors Company (since renamed Motors Liquidation Company). Some of the unwanted crap includes polluted old factories (which we knew about) and the responsibility to safely discard mercury switches in vehicles that were scrapped in the recently-concluded Cash For Clunkers program.

Millions of mercury switches were used in anti-lock brakes sensors and hood and trunk light switches until automakers phased them out in 2004. Since 2005, the group End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corporation (ELVS) "manages, on a nationwide basis, programs to collect, transport, retort, recycle, or dispose of elemental mercury from automotive switches." GM is not listed as a member of ELVS, but GM told us that Motors Liquidation Company is a part of ELVS.

So, who's responsible for the mercury in the clunked GM vehicles? The Mercury Policy Project issued a press release earlier this week saying that GM "has reneged on a commitment to safely discard those switches so they don't pollute our air and water" by not funding ELVS since bankruptcy. This means that ELVS doesn't have enough money to dismantle and dispose of the hundreds of pounds of mercury in the clunkers, 54 percent of which are GM vehicles.

GM sent us a convoluted statement regarding the issue. You can read it in full after the jump, but this is the important part:
Motors Liquidation Company and General Motors Company are separate companies. Responsibility for mercury switches in vehicles manufactured by General Motors Corporation remains the obligation of Motors Liquidation Company. General Motors Company has not produced any vehicles with mercury switches, and has no mercury switch responsibility under state law or the terms of the Bankruptcy Court 363 Transaction Order.
[Source: Mercury Policy Project, GM]
Photo by kodiax2. Licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0.


GM Called on to Cover Mercury Recycling Costs in Cash for Clunkers Program; Recovery of Thousands of Pounds Mercury at Risk

Today, the $3 billion "Cash for Clunkers" program is expiring. The program provided $3500-4500 incentives for turning in less fuel-efficient vehicles to purchase new, more efficient ones. As of early Friday, the program had been a smash success, accounting for sales of 489,000 vehicles. On Thursday, in a radio interview, President Obama called the program "successful beyond anybody's imagination." At the same time old clunkers have poured in to be scrapped, "new" General Motors (GM) has apparently decided it's not responsible for recycling of mercury switches from its vehicles.

According to industry estimates, 54% of all vehicles containing mercury are GM models. Environmentalists estimates that turned-in "clunker" vehicles alone contain over 1,000 pounds of mercury. GM's failure to pay for switch recovery efforts means that over 50% of this mercury could potentially be released into the environment.

"With vehicles pouring into scrap yards under the Cash for Clunkers program, GM should pay its fair share," said Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project. "GM's lack of support leaves others in the lurch. It also detracts further from the financing necessary for the national program to operate effectively."

Nationally, according to industry estimates, GM models now on the road contain more than 18 million mercury switches (39,000 pounds). With Cash for Clunkers adding many more mercury-containing vehicles to the end-of-life pool, it's extremely unfortunate timing for a major supporter to be walking away from the table, say environmentalists.

Last month, a separate fund that helped pay financial incentives to auto dismantlers for turning in switches ran out of cash, so the program was already strapped for cash.

"GM should not hide behind a bankruptcy proceeding as an excuse for not meeting its on-going obligation to fund a vital program for keeping mercury out of the environment," said Charles Griffith, with the Michigan-based Ecology Center. "Americans should demand that in return for the benefits it received under Cash for Clunkers, the company continue meeting its obligations to fund legacy mercury recovery costs from GM end-of-life vehicles."

Mercury switches were used to operate hood and trunk convenience lights in vehicles made before 2004, when automakers stopped their use. Upwards of 100 million of these devices were used in vehicles. Unless they are removed first, the mercury from auto switches is released to the air when vehicles are recycled at steel mills. This source contributes to both local and global mercury pollution and contamination of fish.

Mercury, particularly in the methylmercury form, is a potent neurotoxin that can impair neurological development in fetuses and young children and damage the nervous system of adults. It is toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative. Mercury can be deposited in water, soils, and air where microorganisms can convert it into the highly toxic methlymercury. Methlymercury is also created by combustion of mercury-containing materials like auto switches.


General Motors Corporation filed for bankruptcy on June 1, 2009, and on July 10, 2009 certain facilities were sold to a new company called General Motors Company, under section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code. General Motors Corporation has been renamed Motors Liquidation Company. Motors Liquidation Company and General Motors Company are separate companies.

Responsibility for mercury switches in vehicles manufactured by General Motors Corporation remains the obligation of Motors Liquidation Company. General Motors Company has not produced any vehicles with mercury switches, and has no mercury switch responsibility under state law or the terms of the Bankruptcy Court 363 Transaction Order.

It is our understanding that Motors Liquidation Company remains a member of ELVS

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      Another APPALLING example of the horrible way GM and (mainly) the Feds handled the bankruptcy.
      First of all, it's just not right to be so irresponsible concerning the environment, and second, it gives GM an unfair advantage over all other automakers.
      I think other automakers (like Ford) should make some good old negative ads with this information.
      All I know is: I'm never buying a GM product, EVER!
      • 5 Years Ago
      If you're worried about mercury in the environment the first thing to do is to shut down ALL coal-fired plants.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Ah well, when Fritz Henderson's grandchildren's grandchildren die because of mercury poisoning, drought, flooding, planet sized tropical storms or starvation things will have come full circle.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Why would GM have to collect the mercury from old cars? There are no such laws in the US. Once you take possession of something, it's your problem as to how to dispose of it safely.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I guess legally they don't have to take care of them... although that is a pretty large loophole.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Screw GM.

      So GM feels it can avoid responsibility with a bankruptcy shuffle? A manufacturer that does not take it's responsibilities seriously, either to the environment or it's customers, will weigh heavily in my next car buying decision.
        • 6 Years Ago
        This is NOT GM's fault. The fault lies with Congress for bailing them out and Obama's unconstitutional, unaccountable, unelected "car czar".

        Place blame where it belongs... with the Republicrats and the unintended consequences of Progressive Soviet style central planning.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Wow Tim,

        Way to take a corporate responsibility issue and turn it into political bashing.

        So GM should do whatever it is legally allowed to do, right.

        Just like when companies do a cost-benefit analysis to relocate a fuel tank or just pay settlements to families. It seems wrong but it's all legal, right?

        Just maybe companies should do more than what's legally required to ensure goodwill with their customers.

        I'm not buying a car from a company that makes a mess and won't clean it up regardless of the legal status.
        • 6 Years Ago
        One has to wonder... after they piss off all the people who are interested in "preserving the environment" and "green issues", who will be left to purchase their $40,000 Chevy Volt? You'd think that maybe, just maybe, someone with a bit of common sense would get GM in front of this issue and take care of the problem before too many of the future customers that they are counting on, catch wind of how GM is intending to shirk its corporate responsibility. Just a thought.
        • 6 Years Ago
        You put it very well. Now imagine if all consumers learned this!
      • 6 Years Ago
      So the "New" GM is a separate company that "has not produced any vehicles with mercury switches" am I correct in assuming that it never produced any vehicles from its storied past? That all those vehicles were produced by Motors Liquidation Company? If that's the case are they still using that past on its website and in its marketing?
        • 6 Years Ago
        That is correct, they are trying to have it both ways.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Unfortunately money for such clean-up is rarely held in escrow and gets reallocated to other priorities.

      The simple fact of the matter is that bankruptcy was a huge gift to GM allowing them to avoid creditors, environmental cleanup, product liability issues, and investor claims. Having received all this, GM's lawyers come up with this line:

      (the new and improved) "General Motors Company has not produced any vehicles with mercury switches".

      Go ahead and hide behind your brand-new corporate veil GM.

      There is now elevated levels of mercury virtually all seafood products, not just apex predator like tuna and swordfish. It pains me to admit this, but Europe is so far ahead of us on this that it's embarrassing to me as an American. At least we know someone will dispose of these switches but it will likely, once again, fall on taxpayers.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Looks like some people need to look up the definition of bankruptcy.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Situations like these are exactly why some of the more progressive states are requiring disposal costs to be paid up-front by companies when hazardous products are sold.

      Had GM been allowed to "fail" via chapter 7 liquidation, we taxpayers would still have been left paying for the disposal of these mercury switches. No company would have purchased that particular liability, nor any asset with that liability attached to it.

      EPA superfund, meet Motors Liquidation Co. Remember they own all the defunct factory sites as well...
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