How bad is Tesla’s hazardous waste problem in California?

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Allegations that Tesla mishandled hazardous waste point to a systemic failure at the company’s California facilities. This was no simple accident or one-off event.

No less than 25 counties sued Tesla this week for allegedly illegally disposing of hazardous waste. Within a couple days, the Elon Musk-led company agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the suit that says the company “intentionally” and “negligently” disposed of materials that should have been handled with care.

Waste management experts tell The Verge that a large company like Tesla should have known better. On top of the trouble it’s facing in California, the company might even have run afoul of federal regulations for handling hazardous waste.

“That’s pretty egregious in my book.”

The California counties accuse Tesla of violating state health and safety codes by disposing or “caus[ing] the disposal of” hazardous waste at places that aren’t actually authorized to accept the materials. The suit alleges that the company tossed some of it in dumpsters or compactors; the waste could then wind up in a landfill not permitted to take in hazardous substances. It also says Tesla “failed to determine” if waste generated at its facilities was hazardous, “failed to properly mark, label, and store” hazardous waste at its facilities, and didn’t comply with record-keeping requirements or properly train employees on how to handle the materials.

“That’s pretty egregious in my book,” says Christopher Kohler, an adjunct instructor at Indiana University who is an expert on hazardous waste, environmental remediation, and chemical hygiene. “These rules and regulations have been around for gosh… almost 50 years, and they should know better by now.”

The complaint names 101 facilities across California that generated hazardous waste including: used lubricating oils, brake fluids, lead acid batteries, aerosols, antifreeze, waste solvents, paint, e-waste, and other “contaminated debris.”

These are pretty common types of waste, according to Kohler. Nevertheless, their disposal is regulated because of the risks these substances can pose when mishandled. Lead and chlorinated solvents are toxic, oils are flammable, and acids are corrosive, Kohler points out.

Investigators with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office started “undercover inspections” of trash containers at Tesla’s car service centers in 2018. They found “the illegal disposal of numerous used hazardous automotive components (i.e., lubricating oils, brake cleaners, lead acid and other batteries, aerosols, antifreeze, waste solvents and other cleaners, electronic waste, waste paint, and debris contaminated with the above),” according to the DA’s office. After that, investigators from other counties also started rifling through Tesla’s trash and found similar “unlawful disposals.” At Tesla’s Fremont factory, investigators also found welding spatter waste, waste paint mix cups, and wipes / debris contaminated with primer unlawfully chucked into the trash.

Lead and chlorinated solvents are toxic, oils are flammable, and acids are corrosive

“I have no idea of the motives or reason for the incorrect disposal. It would seem like a breakdown in a hazardous waste management plan,” Treavor Boyer, environmental engineering program chair at Arizona State University, writes to The Verge in an email.

Big companies typically have a waste professional on hand to determine how to handle these kinds of substances at their facilities, Kohler tells The Verge. He says it seems like Tesla lacked this and neglected to put proper company policies and procedures in place at its service centers.

Take lead acid batteries from motor vehicles, for instance, made up of primarily — you guessed it — lead and acid. It’s illegal in most states to dump them in the trash. They might corrode and release lead, which can escape a landfill and go on to pollute the surrounding environment and even drinking water sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Leaking batteries can also pose risks to workers at landfills, incinerators, and transfer stations. Incinerating the batteries might even release lead into the air. Lead is a known neurotoxin that’s especially dangerous to children.

Lead acid batteries in particular are supposed to be recycled, and the lead can be reused in new batteries. Other materials might need to be sent to a hazardous waste landfill that has double the plastic lining in place as a typical sanitary landfill in order to protect groundwater from anything that might otherwise leach into it. Moreover, materials need to be treated and show characteristics of being “non-hazardous” before they can even head to a hazardous waste landfill. It takes extra work to make these kinds of arrangements, which can be more expensive than handling less risky refuse.

When it comes to Tesla’s handling of these kinds of materials in California, “The situation seems to be a violation of RCRA [short for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] which is the federal regulation for managing hazardous waste,” Boyer writes. However, California mandates are more stringent than federal waste regulation.

The Verge reached out to the EPA to ask whether it is investigating Tesla for violating the law and, if so, whether the company might face any federal penalties. A spokesperson for the EPA said in an email that, “Due to ongoing litigation, EPA cannot comment on this case.”

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Verge; it didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing on its part in the settlement.

The settlement includes a five-year injunction during which Tesla will have to comply with measures including annual third-party waste audits and mandatory training for employees. The San Francisco DA’s office says Tesla “cooperated” with its investigation and “took steps to improve its compliance with the environmental protection laws brought to its attention by the prosecutors. After Tesla was notified of the issues, they began quarantining and screening trash containers for hazardous waste at all of its service centers before trash was brought to the landfill.”

Other automakers have terrible track records with hazardous waste

In 2022, Tesla agreed to pay $275,000 in a settlement with the EPA over violations of the Clean Air Act at its Fremont factory. Tesla also had to pay a $31,000 penalty as part of a settlement with the agency in 2019 for storing hazardous waste at its Fremont factory without a required permit.

The EPA also found that Tesla didn’t maintain enough aisle space for the safe movement of personnel through the main area where it stored hazardous waste, and violated air emission standards for three leaking transmission lines. It also spotted two open 55-gallon containers of hazardous waste with “no gasket or locking mechanism,” and that the company failed to “promptly clean up” flammable paint and solvent mixtures that leaked from transmission lines or pumps.

Other automakers have terrible track records with hazardous waste. GM agreed to pay a $773 million settlement in 2010 with the US, 14 states, and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe over “environmental liabilities” including hazardous waste at its properties. In 2022, New Jersey sued Ford for dumping toxic paint sludge and contaminating “hundreds of acres of soil, water, wetlands” and state-recognized tribal lands of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.  

“Today’s settlement against Tesla, Inc. serves to provide a cleaner environment for citizens throughout the state by preventing the contamination of our precious natural resources when hazardous waste is mismanaged and unlawfully disposed,” San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said in a Thursday press release.