Everybody's jumping on the BAN-wagon

Bob Ulrich
Posted on October 19, 2009

State by state, lead wheel weights are being targeted for elimination. Vermont, Maine and Washington already have enacted bills prohibiting their use. California and Iowa have pending legislation.

Maryland legislators introduced a bill banning lead wheel weights into the state’s House of Representatives. But the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) opposed HR 763 because of budgetary constraints, and it failed.

If it had passed, the Maryland bill would have cost the department more than $220,000 annually in staff, supplies, equipment and other resources. The MDE does, however, support the National Lead Free-Wheel Weight Initiative (see sidebar,  page 28). Sponsored by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the initiative “encourages the transition from the use of lead for wheel weights to lead-free alternatives.”

Minnesota and Oregon are voluntarily replacing lead wheel weights in their fleets. Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) undertook the transition with the help of Les Schwab Tire Centers, which supplies ODOT with tires.

The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) drafted resolution 08-9 supporting a ban on the sale and installation of lead wheel weights by 2011. ECOS is a national, non-profit association of state and “territorial” environmental agency leaders.

A number of counties and cities also have jumped on the ban-wagon. The city of Ann Arbor, Mich., started phasing out lead wheel weights in 2004. City leaders in Blacksburg, Va., followed suit in 2006.

Both King County, Wash., and Contra Costa County, Calif., promote the use of lead-free alternatives in their fleets. The Fleet Administration Division of the King County Department of Transportation began its push in 2005 “due to environmental concerns and increased availability of alternatives.”

Earlier this year, the EPA honored Contra Costa County “for its commitment to voluntarily replace all lead wheel weights from thousands of tires, resulting in a reduction of more than 2,000 pounds of lead from the environment by 2012.”

The elimination of lead wheel weights from our industry seems inevitable. The piecemeal way in which the nation is going about it is not.

In the near future, state law may be superseded by federal legislation. The EPA recently agreed to promptly begin proceedings “for the issuance of a rule to prohibit the manufacture, processing and distribution in commerce of lead wheel balancing weights.”

The EPA is in the rule-making stage. Once the rule becomes final, it probably would make the EPA’s nationwide initiative moot, although the government bodies already trending that way will be ahead of the game.

Too late to self-regulate?

Two years ago, the EPA ( requested that the industry self-regulate the transition away from lead wheel weights to viable alternatives because of the highly toxic nature of lead. However, a dozen environmental and public health organizations couldn’t wait, so earlier this year, they jointly petitioned the agency to enact legislation as soon as possible. The EPA granted the petition in August.

“EPA’s action makes it clear that the agency recognizes that once released into our neighborhoods, lead is tough to clean up,” said Tom Neltner, co-chairman of the National Toxic Team for the Sierra Club, in a statement on the club’s Web site. “Pollution prevention is the best way to protect our health and our environment.”

According to the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, lead in wheel weights represents “one of the largest unregulated uses of lead in consumer products today.” Both the Sierra Club and Ecology Center signed the petition.

“I think the industry will move to lead-free alternatives faster than the government will legislate it,” says Kevin Keefe, vice president of marketing for Hennessy Industries Inc. The wheel weight manufacturer has been actively transitioning away from lead wheel weights to steel because of environmental concerns and pending legislation.

Lead wheel weights account for the majority of Hennessy’s production, “but I would anticipate that percentage will tip the other way in a year’s time,” says Keefe. “We’ve essentially retooled our entire business to steel.”

Update in California

What the EPA’s proposed rule will look like is anyone’s guess. Since California usually wags the dog when it comes to environmental law, an examination of its efforts restricting the use of lead wheel weights may give us some insight.

Senate Bill 757 seeks to ban “both the sale and the installation of lead wheel weights on cars and trucks” after January 2010. The bill defines lead wheel weights as containing more than 0.1% lead by weight.

SB 757 also would codify a legal settlement initiated by the Center for Environmental Health (CEC) in Oakland, Calif., last year. The CEC had filed a lawsuit against Chrysler Group LLC and the three largest producers of automobile lead wheel weights. Under the terms of the settlement Chrysler agreed “to eliminate its use of lead wheel weights for cars intended for sale in California by July 31, 2009.” Plombco Inc. (zinc alloy), Perfect Equipment Inc. (zinc, steel) and Hennessy (steel) agreed to replace lead wheel weight shipments to California with weights made of alternative materials by the end of 2009.

The bill has passed through the California legislature, and awaits Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature.

Commercial applications

Does California’s definition of “trucks” apply to medium- and heavy-duty trucks and busses? Will the EPA address the issue? The answers to those questions are unknown at this point.

States, counties and cities are handling lead wheel weight bans in different ways, according to Kyle Lasenby, marketing manager for the 3M Automotive Division’s Wheel Weight System. 3M manufactures a non-lead alternative wheel weight made of a polymer/metal composite material.

“To be certain, you would have to look at the specific requirements of the legislation in your state,” he says.

“In many cases, the legislative language states ‘motor vehicles’ and does not specify ‘automobiles and light trucks,’ for example. Or some legislation simply bans lead in wheel weights and does not say anything about types of vehicles. Again, check the details of the legislation in your state.”    ■

Group mentality -- Wheel weight companies support EPA initiative

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched its National Lead-Free Wheel Weight Initiative in August of 2008. It was developed as “a partnership among federal agencies, states, wheel weight manufacturers, retailers, tire manufacturers, automobile trade associations and environmentalists.”

Several wheel weight manufacturers are charter members: Hennessy Industries Inc. (BADA Division), Perfect Equipment Inc., the 3M Automotive Division and Plombco Inc.

Members with retail outlets include Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Tire & Lube Service Centers, Sam’s Club). Original equipment vehicle manufacturers are represented by Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Chrysler Group LLC and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc.

Rounding out the list of charter members are the United States Air Force, U.S. Postal Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration; the town of Blacksburg, Va.; the Ecology Center and Sierra Club; the Environmental Council of States; and several small businesses.

Steel resolve -- Commercial Tire embraces lead-free wheel weights

Independent tire dealers like Les Schwab Tire Centers, Main Street Tire & Auto and Commercial Tire Inc. have moved away from lead wheel weights.

Les Schwab Tire Centers, based in Bend, Ore., and Main Street Tire, a one-store outlet in Vancouver, Wash., are now lead-free.

Commercial Tire, a 32-store dealership based in Meriden, Idaho, has been transitioning from lead wheel weights to BADA steel weights. President Bob Schwenkfelder says his stores install close to 15,000 wheel weights a month.

“The industry is moving more and more toward eliminating lead wheel weights, with some states even passing legislation to ban lead weights altogether. I certainly wanted to keep Commercial Tire ahead of the pack, and start the transition to steel to provide a better quality, eco-friendly product to our customers.”

Schwenkfelder says it has been an easy transition for his technicians. Now it’s time to educate his customers about the environmental benefits of steel wheel weights.

“Most drivers don’t know they have lead weights in their tires, much less (that) there is a better, eco-friendly option available.”

Related Topics: Going green, lead-free wheel weights, Steel Wheel Weights, zinc wheel weights

Bob Ulrich Editor
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