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The political arm of the Wisconsin Sierra Club is slamming Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling in direct mail pieces that mince few words about the group’s view of her environmental voting record.
She "looks the other way while corporate polluters ravage our lakes, our rivers and our air." She’s a "corporate Darling" whose actions are "damaging Wisconsin’s future."
The claim that jumped out at us involved a 2009 vote on a bill banning disposal of computers, TVs and other electronics in landfills or incinerators. The "e-waste" recycling bill put the onus on product manufacturers to collect obsolete goods containing heavy metals and keep them out of the trash.
"Alberta Darling’s Gone Too Far," the headline in one mailer reads. "Allowing Mercury to Harm Our Children."
Another mailer claims Darling "voted to allow mercury and other harmful toxins into landfills where they can seep into our water supply."
With these accusations flooding mailboxes in the weeks before the August 9, 2011, recall election between Darling and state Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Whitefish Bay, we thought we’d take a look.
The ban and recycling program passed 23-10 with little fanfare and some bipartisan support in June 2009 and was signed by Gov. Jim Doyle. Five Republican senators joined the majority. Twenty-five states, including Minnesota, now have such programs.
Darling felt the fees and recycling requirements on manufacturers were excessive, said Andrew Davis, her campaign manager.
In the end, Darling, as the Sierra Club claims, did vote against the bill.
But the main thrust of the claim is that her "allowing mercury to harm our children" vote will "allow mercury and other harmful toxins into landfills where they can seep into our water supply."
The political director of the Sierra Club, David Blouin, said the claim is justified because the goal of the bill was to keep mercury and other toxins out of the waste supply.
"If it’s going into landfills, which all eventually leak, that threatens our water supplies," Blouin said. "Any increase (in mercury waste) via reduction of regulation allows mercury to harm our kids, or potentially could."
That’s a strong statement, but with a couple of big "ifs."
Let’s examine the evidence.
The nonpartisan U.S. General Accountability Office in 2005 reviewed studies on e-waste and found that, by one account, 100 million computers, monitors, and televisions become obsolete each year and that the level is growing. Research showed two major concerns: the loss of natural resources such as copper, and the potential release of toxic substances in the environment.
"EPA has identified lead, mercury, and cadmium (which are typically found in computers or monitors), as priority toxic chemicals for reduction under an agency program, the GAO reported. "According to EPA, these toxic substances do not break down when released into the environment and can be dangerous, even in small quantities."
EPA’s website says that some electronics (such as color CRT computer monitors, color CRT TV tubes, and smaller items such as cell phones and other "hand-helds") test "hazardous" under federal law.
The GAO report says that the Solid Waste Association of North America found an apparent increase in lead from used electronics showing up in municipal landfills. And "tests conducted at the University of Florida indicate that lead leachate from color computer monitors and televisions with CRTs"... could be considered hazardous waste under federal rules.
But GAO added that the Florida researcher cautioned that his findings don’t necessarily mean it would leak from a modern landfill. And GAO noted that the Solid Waste Association declares municipal landfills as safe for managing used electronics "without exceeding toxicity limits."
The GAO’s bottom line: "Regarding the issue of toxicity, the research we reviewed is unclear on the extent to which toxic substances may leach from used electronics in landfills."
We heard the same kind of terminology about possible risks from other experts:
A Congressional Research Service report to lawmakers in 2002 said that "disposal of these products, when they become "e-waste"
at the end of their useful lives poses major potential environmental problems."
"There is a possibility eventually that metals leach out over time," said Sarah Murray, a Wisconsin DNR employee who heads Wisconsin’s e-cycle program. That’s what drove states to implement the laws.
The new program ended an exemption for households and electronics disposal. The new program, Murray said, has boosted recycling through drop-off programs: 30 million pounds of various categories of electronics have been recycled since the law kicked in.
"It’s hard to say absolutely that there is less in landfills, but people have used it," Murray said.
Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition, called e-waste laws common sense preventive measures. In Wisconsin, Kyle said, there was little resistance by manufacturers to the bill.
"It could cause harm, and it’s a waste of resources," she said. "Can you prove it ever got into the water stream? No, you can’t prove a link because (electronics) are all crunched up with other garbage."
We’ll give the final word to Brad Wolbert, Wisconsin DNR’s chief of recycling and solid waste.
Wolbert told us it’s true that landfill liners don’t last forever. And it’s true, he said, that mercury can get into landfill gas and escape. And DNR believes it makes sense to divert electronics from landfills.
But it’s a stretch to say that harm has already come, or will come, to anyone from metals in discarded electronics, Wolbert said.
"Nobody knows," he said.
Let’s dig out.
There’s little doubt that disposal of electronic products is a serious environmental issue involving hazardous substances.
There is an element of truth in that Darling voted against the bill that aims to prevent harm. The Sierra Club mailers, though, push past what is known and attack Darling for "allowing mercury to harm our children."
That day could come -- or not. But nobody claims it has already arrived.
The statement earns a Mostly False on the Truth-O-Meter.
Wisconsin Sierra Club Education Committee, campaign flier, July 23, 2011
Interview with Brad Wolbert, DNR chief of recycling and solid waste section, Aug. 5, 2011
Email exchange with Andrew Davis, Darling campaign manager, Aug. 5, 2011
Interview with David Blouin, volunteer political director, Wisconsin Sierra Club Education Committee, Aug. 2, 2011
Interview with Sarah Murray, DNR e-cycle coordinator, Aug. 2, 2011
Interview with Barbara Kyle, national coordinator, Electronics TakeBack Coalition, Aug. 2, 2011
Interview with Garth Hickle, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, product stewardship team leader, Aug. 2, 2011
Roll call vote on SB 107, June 9, 2009
Text of SB 107
GAO study, Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse, November 2005
Wisconsin Legislative Council, memo on Act 50 e-recycle law, Feb. 23, 2010
Congressional Research Service, Recycling Computers and Electronic Equipment: Legislative and Regulatory Approaches for "E-Waste," July 19, 2002
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