Amicus Brief: Athletics v. California Department of Toxic Substances Control

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Schnitzer Steel at the Port of Oakland, California

Credit: Herb Lingl/

When metal recyclers shred old cars, appliances, and other products containing metal, they generate “auto fluff,” a residue that can contain heavy metals like lead. Auto fluff is so toxic that it meets the threshold for hazardous waste under California law. But for decades, California law had a loophole for metal shredding facilities, which gave these facilities a free pass to generate hazardous waste without obeying the state’s commonsense protections to keep that waste from spreading into communities. Under-regulated and exposed to the elements, this hazardous waste blows into surrounding communities, contaminating the air, soil, and water, as well as our bodies. Metal shredder waste also has the potential to catch on fire, putting lives in immediate peril. Until this litigation, six metal shredders operated under this legal loophole, and in a telling example of environmental racism, all six facilities are sited in frontline environmental justice communities.

Schnitzer Steel, a metal shredder in Oakland, California, is one of these facilities. Data show how Schnitzer Steel releases heavy metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium, and copper into its surroundings—all of which are known to irreversibly damage human health and the environment.

In 2014, after years of pressure from the frontline communities most at risk from metal shredder pollution, California passed a bill that directed the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to establish more protective hazardous waste management standards for metal shredding facilities. But DTSC failed to implement the law, prompting a lawsuit by the Oakland Athletics, a Major League Baseball team, which alleged that the state had failed to protect local communities from harmful pollution from Schnitzer Steel. The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Communities for a Better Environment, San Francisco Baykeeper, and NRDC filed an amicus brief* in support of the Oakland Athletics’ position in January 2021, calling on DTSC to properly regulate metal shredding facilities throughout the state.

In April 2021, in a resounding victory for environmental justice in California, the Superior Court ordered DTSC to implement the 2014 law. DTSC ended Schnitzer Steel’s special exemption from hazardous waste law shortly thereafter. Schnitzer Steel appealed that decision to the First Appellate District in California. The original amici, joined by additional amicus the Sierra Club, filed an amicus brief in the appellate court case in January 2022. Unfortunately, the appellate court reversed the trial court decision, and the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the appellate court’s decision.

Despite these setbacks, in May 2023, the trial court allowed the Oakland Athletics to renew its lawsuit. In November 2023, the amici coalition filed another amicus brief, and continues to follow the trial court proceedings closely. No matter what happens next in court, NRDC will continue to seek ways to help push DTSC to protect Californians from metal shredder pollution—once and for all.

*An amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) brief is filed by a nonparty to the case to assist the court by offering information or expertise that has bearing on the issues before the court.

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