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Industry's still moving to get lead out of wheel weights

By Miles Moore; From www.tirebusiness.com

WASHINGTON-The tire distribution business may not be hurrying to get the lead out of wheel balancing weights, but it definitely is moving in that direction.

BADA, the wheel weight manufacturing division of La Vergne, Tenn.-based Hennessy Industries Inc., has launched a Web site,www.steelwheelweights.com, that touts the environmental benefits of steel wheel weights in general and BADA's steel weights in particular.

"We still are in the lead business, and lead wheel weights still are the largest part of our business," said Don Vanderheyden, group marketing manager for Hennessy, "but we're seeing shipments of steel weights that are seven or eight times what we shipped last year."

Myers Tire Supply, the Akron-based distributor of tools, equipment and supplies for tire dealerships, reports a similar trend in its business.

"The major part of our wheel weight business is still lead, but there are some requests for alternatives," said Larry Edgell, Myers marketing manager. He noted that both Hennessy and Perfect Equipment Inc., the two dominant manufacturers of wheel balancing weights, offer alternatives to lead-Hennessy offering steel, Perfect selling both steel and zinc.

The European Union (EU) banned lead wheel weights in 2005, and that ban plus a small but growing number of state and local government initiatives are causing U.S. auto makers to stop using lead wheel weights, according to a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

"Very few original equipment manufacturers still use lead wheel weights," the spokesman said. "As new models are introduced, the last of the lead weights will be phased out."

Among tire makers, Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) has been the most public in championing a phase-out of lead weights.

In December 2007, BFS said it would phase out lead weights in its approximately 2,200 company-owned retail stores throughout 2008. More recently, Firestone Racing announced it had switched to the non-lead composite weights made by 3M Corp. from lead weights for tires it supplies/services for the IndyRacing League.

"This change to non-lead wheel weights is just one of many efforts to protect and conserve our environment under Bridgestone's 'One Team, One Planet' program," said Al Speyer, executive director of Bridgestone/Firestone Motorsports.

Goodyear also has a plan in place to transition its Goodyear Automotive Centers network of 750 company-owned retail stores to steel weights from lead, though it has no timetable for the transition as yet, a Goodyear spokesman said.

Not all areas of North America have caught the anti-lead fever, however.

"As far as I can find out, we are still using and buying lead weights from suppliers in western Canada," said Dick Allen, director of store expansion for Edmonton, Alberta-based Fountain Tire and president of the Western Canada Tire Dealers.

"Suppliers haven't brought us an alternative, though we would look at an alternative if it was offered to us, to be environmentally friendly."

Monro Muffler Brake Inc., the Rochester, N.Y.-based tire and auto service chain, is in the process of switching from lead to steel wheel weights at its 718 outlets that operate under the Mr. Tire, Tread Quarters and Monro store names, according to Joseph Tomarchio Jr., Monro executive vice president of store operations based in Baltimore.

"It's a rolling change, so far so good, no problems or complaints," he said. Monro began the phaseout of lead shortly before last fall's Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show in Las Vegas. "We should be pretty much finished with the transition by year-end, though there probably will be some stragglers."

Laws, costs, other factors

Environmental concerns about lead, as well as governmental actions against lead wheel weights, are motivating the auto and tire industries to move away from the substance. One factor, however, has slowed the move away from lead: the cost of lead weights remains considerably cheaper than weights made of steel, zinc or composites. Zinc also has been called into question for possible negative environmental effects, though not yet as widely as lead.

"Eventually a phaseout of lead will happen, though it's hard to predict when it will be completed," Hennessy's Mr. Vanderheyden said. There was a spike in interest in non-lead weights in the fall of 2007, when lead reached $1.60 per pound, he noted, but now lead is back to its usual price of around 90 cents per pound, and the price increase appeared to have been a fluke.

"Without pricing parity between lead and steel, it will be hard to change the market without legislation," he said.

BADA has a link on its steel wheel weights Web site to the latest news on state, local and regional actions to ban or curtail the use of lead wheel weights. States such as Maine and Massachusetts have considered anti-lead legislation, and municipalities such as Ann Arbor, Mich., and Blacksburg, Va., are actively seeking alternatives to lead for city fleets.

Federal government agencies also are declaring their own bans on lead, according to Mr. Vanderheyden. For example, the U.S. Air Force no longer uses lead weights for on-base vehicles, and the U.S. Postal Service has banished lead weights from its vehicle fleet, he said.

For the past two years, the Washington state legislature has considered a bill to ban lead wheel weights, and the bill will be back for the next legislative session, according to Dick Nordness, executive director of the Northwest Tire Dealers Association (NWTDA).

Some of the claims environmentalists have made about lead weights in the environment are ridiculous, Mr. Nordness said. "They made it sound as if lead weights are all over the roads. If that were true, every one of our members would have a line of customers around the block, waiting to get their tires rebalanced."

Nevertheless, the NWTDA's opposition to the legislation has lessened as more alternatives to lead have become available, he said. "We are willing to work with legislators to see what we can do. The cost of alternatives is still quite high, but it's one of those things where we realize lead is not good for the environment."

An even more ambitious effort is that of the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health (CEH).

With the help of the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., the CEH has challenged the use of lead wheel weights in California as violating the state's safe drinking water provisions under Proposition 65.

In August 2007, the CEH notified Chrysler L.L.C., the last U.S. auto maker to use lead weights to any degree, and wheel weight makers including Hennessy and Perfect that it would institute legal action against them under Proposition 65 unless they stopped selling or using lead weights in California.

"We are hopeful to get a settlement in that case this year that will eliminate the sale of lead wheel weights in California," said Jeff Gearhart, auto project campaign director with the Ecology Center.

Obtaining a lead ban in California would be an enormous victory for his group, Mr. Gearhart said, because California is the largest market in the U.S. for wheel weights and it would provide impetus for other states to follow suit.

By mutual agreement

One group not seeking edicts against lead wheel weights is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Instead, the EPA is trying to use persuasion and agreement with major wheel weight distributors and suppliers.

"EPA is pursuing voluntary initiatives to phase out lead wheel weights," an EPA spokeswoman said. Several companies have agreed to reduce lead use through the agency's National Partnership for Environmental Priorities, she said.

For example, Hennessy and Perfect have committed to reduce their lead use by 22 million pounds by 2011, and Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp. has committed to reduce its sales of lead weights by 10,000 pounds by year-end, she said.

"EPA has also sent out several letters of intent to prospective parties to commit to reducing or eliminating their use of lead wheel weights," the spokeswoman said.

Fearing a major cost burden on its members caused by a ban on lead weights, the Tire Industry Association (TIA) has worked closely with the EPA over the past few years to find an equitable solution to the lead question, according to Paul Fiore, the association's director of government and business affairs. However, the association has had little feedback from the agency recently, he said.

TIA has no problem whatever with its members and the aftermarket moving voluntarily away from lead weights, Mr. Fiore said. Its only real concern is that the price disparity between lead and steel might lead to a "black market" in lead weights. This would be a real problem, he said, because illegal weights would be far less likely to be recycled properly than legal ones.

Meanwhile, like BADA, distributors of wheel weights are trying to make sure that their customers know of the environmental benefits of steel and other alternatives.

Myers Tire Supply, for example, is putting together product information bulletins on steel weights for its customers. The company expects to have them ready very shortly, according to Mr. Edgell.

Meanwhile, the industry is willing to be cooperative with government on this issue, Mr. Nordness said.

"We really agree with the EPA, which is allowing the industry to regulate itself," he said. "The best thing we can do as service companies is to offer the different alternatives, explain the differences, and let the customers make up their minds."

The Ecology Center is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization that works for a safe and healthy environment where people live, work and play. For more information go to EcoCenter.org or LeadFreeWheels.org.

Lead Free Wheels is a project of the Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization.