West Coast states to limit copper in brake pads
Washington, California work with industry to save salmon
DETROIT -- For decades, state and federal governments have passed laws regulating vehicle safety, but come 2021 laws in Washington state and California will take effect to make brake pads safer -- not for drivers or passengers but for salmon.
Passed in 2010, similar legislation in both states will require that any brake pads sold there after 2021 contain less than 5 percent copper by weight.
Because it's not financially feasible for automakers to sell vehicles with one type of brakes in only two states, it is expected that the Washington and California laws will alter the makeup of brake pads sold in North America.
Regulators in Washington, which passed its law before California, finished the rulemaking process to establish regulations and enforcement mechanisms last month.
Automakers, brake manufacturers and retailers were heavily involved in shaping the rules and were supportive of the law.
Both laws also have provisions that ban the use of asbestos, lead, hexavalent chromium and other toxic chemicals in brake pads starting in 2014.
Copper is used in brake pads as a friction material to bring the vehicle to an efficient stop. Every time a driver steps on the brakes, a tiny bit of the copper-laden material is deposited onto the road. Ultimately, it ends up in waterways where it affects salmon and other marine wildlife.
A 2011 report from the Washington Department of Ecology estimated that about 21 percent of the copper that's deposited into Puget Sound annually, about 37 metric tons of copper, is a result of discharge from brakes. (See video here.)
As little as five to 10 micrograms of copper per liter of water -- a microgram is one-millionth of a gram -- are enough to hinder salmon's ability to find food or evade predators, said David Baldwin, a research zoologist at the federally funded Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
"Rather than outright killing the fish, it just renders them unable to smell," Baldwin said of the copper. "For fish, smell is a really important sensory system."
Differences in the laws
Washington's law, named the Better Brakes Law, also includes a provision that starting in 2015, the Department of Ecology will review whether it's feasible for brake pads to consist of less than 0.5 percent copper by weight. After the department determines that alternative brake pad friction materials are available and cost-effective, there will be an eight year grace period before only brakes with less than 0.5 percent copper by weight can be sold in the state.
The California law, meanwhile, establishes a hard deadline of 2025 for manufacturers to reduce the amount of copper in brake pads sold in California to 0.5 percent.
Ann Wilson, senior vice president for government affairs at the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, said California went with the stricter deadline because it's had trouble with compliance issues in the past.
"They needed to have a drop-dead date," Wilson, whose organization represents motor vehicle suppliers, said. She added that manufacturers are likely to abide by the California regulation because it'd be difficult to deal with two different regulations.
Not all constituencies, however, supported California's hard 2025 deadline. Global Automakers, an industry group representing foreign automakers operating in the United States, thought the Washington law "was a better way to go," CEO Michael Stanton said.
"We're not exactly sure how to do the half a percent by weight."
In June, the Washington Department of Ecology released its proposed regulations on how it planned to implement the law. Ian Wesley, the Better Brakes rule coordinator, said automakers, brake manufacturers and retailers supported the law because it didn't give any single company a competitive advantage.
"They wanted to create a level playing field and make sure everyone had to do the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing and remove copper from their products," Wesley said.
The laws were structured not to go into effect until 2021 to give manufacturers enough time to fine a safe and effective alternative. There can be up to 40 different materials in a brake pad, so it's not as simple as removing copper and replacing it with another material, Wesley said.
Environmental, consumer and industry groups such as MEMA, Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers all consulted with Washington state during the rulemaking process to ensure that they would be able to comply with the regulations.
Washington regulators established independent tests to ensure that brakes are compliant, and the Washington law also includes certain exemptions if regulators decide that it's impossible for a company to comply with the brake pad law.
Many manufacturing groups typically oppose state-by-state regulations that force them to adapt their business practices for a smaller market. But MEMA's Wilson said that because California is such a big market, the rest of the country is likely to follow suit. She added that the suppliers and automakers are working together with state and federal regulators to draft a memorandum of understanding that would establish national guidelines that are in accordance with the Washington and California laws.
Another concern persists because drivers keep their vehicles longer -- the average car on the road today is about 11 years old; aftermarket retailers are worried about their ability to obtain parts that are compliant with the law.
"We're talking about distributors and retailers who buy from a variety of different sources -- some of them buy directly from a manufacturer, some of them buy over the Internet and some of them buy from other sources," Wilson said. "That's more complicated and that's going to make it more difficult to make sure we have compliance."
You can reach Joseph Lichterman at email@example.com.