I feel quite conflicted about the announcement that Exide will close its controversial battery recycling facility in Petone next month because the Government is exporting lead batteries overseas and depriving them of business.
On the one hand, the plant has a shocking history of resource consent breaches, dangerous waste disposal, and toxic pollution. It’s located in a residential area, most of which is social housing, meaning the residents had very little choice about moving in next door to a lead emitting factory. A local stream where many children play (but probably shouldn’t) runs right behind it, and joins the Hutt River right near the mouth where others fish for kai from the Waione Street overbridge. The existence of the factory so close to residential homes should never have been allowed – it’s a strange anachronism that it was.
So in many ways Exide’s closure is good news, not least for the vege garden at my place, just two streets away.
But Exide’s closure will also mark the loss of New Zealand’s capacity to recycle lead batteries on shore. This is no small thing: if our vision of a waste-free Aotearoa is ever to be realised, we must retain the ability to deal with our own waste. Shipping it overseas – in contravention of our international obligations under the Basel Convention – for someone else to deal with is not a viable solution. Information about the plants the batteries are sent to, in places like Korea, is scarce, and there is a good chance we are simply polluting someone else’s backyard.
There is a very real chance that once we lose this capacity to recycle lead batteries in New Zealand, we will never get it back.
Last year, I submitted on Exide’s application to renew its resource consent, suggesting that it should be allowed to continue to operate for a shorter period, conditional on the plant either meeting international best practice standards, or relocating to a non-residential area like Seaview. A pre-hearing meeting between Exide and submitters was due to be held next week – I guess this won’t take place now, but it would have been good to hear whether the plant’s managers were open to addressing these conditions.
Once Exide closes, there seems to be one other option for retaining battery recycling capacity in New Zealand. Last year a company called ChemPro Logistics signalled its intention to establish a lead battery recycling facility not far away in Seaview. This proposal is looking increasingly attractive – they say they would use state of the art equipment and meet international best practice standards; they are already in an industrial zone, and there would be potential for some of Exide’s 40 sacked workers to be re-employed.
However I have no idea how realistic these plans are. When I met with ChemPro and toured their facility during the election campaign last year, they told me their plans – like Exide – relied on the Government stopping exporting batteries overseas. An unsuccessful court challenge last year seems to have dashed these hopes.
By ignoring our international obligations and sending our toxic waste overseas, the Government is probably kissing goodbye New Zealand’s capacity to recycle our own lead batteries. Whatever you think of Exide, this is a decision we may well live to regret.
P.S There will be significant clean up concerns associated with Exide’s closure. It would be great if, once closed, Exide is added to the list of Toxic Sites Catherine Delahunty has negotiated with Environment Minister Nick Smith.