Throwing Brickbats At Big Oil's Recycling Act

American consumers long have lacked an environmentally sound way to dump used motor oil. Many simply send it down storm drains, leave it for the garbageman to take to a landfill, or use it as weed killer--all of which pose threats to groundwater. To solve the problem--and give public relations a boost--Amoco, Mobil, and Exxon lately have been offering to do the public a favor by recycling used oil.

Now, a coalition of environmental groups claims that the oil company ads about the recycling programs are misleading. In a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission on Apr. 23, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Izaak Walton League of America, an environmental group, contend that consumers have been snookered because most of the oil collected is burned as fuel. They say the ads give the impression that the oil will be re-refined into lubricant.

Burning used oil as fuel, the environmentalists say, endangers the public's health by releasing lead and other toxic chemicals into the air. "These companies are using this 'green scam' to clean up their dirty images without changing their filthy behavior," says the Sierra Club's Daniel J. Weiss.

LESS HARMFUL. The companies concede that the oil is burned. But they argue that recycling is recycling--it doesn't matter how the oil is reused. They also maintain that the pollution that results from burning is within legal limits and less harmful than dumping the oil into groundwater. The complaint, the companies say, is a publicity stunt. "It's fund-raising time for them, and we're their favorite villains," says an oil company executive. "The Republicans use ads with Ted Kennedy, the Democrats use Jesse Helms, and the environmentalists use the oil companies."

Actually, most used oil is collected by used-oil dealers--not the oil companies. They sell it to re-refiners, or as industrial boiler fuel, or home heating oil. Amoco Corp. collects some of its own oil to fuel its refinery in Whiting, Ind., and mixes the used oil with new oil to dilute the lead. When burned, Amoco says, the quantity of lead in the fuel is 2% of the federal standard for home heating oil. "It's a proper use, and we don't believe it's at all hurting the environment," says an Amoco spokeswoman.

The FTC complaint actually may be just the start of an environmental campaign that is aimed at eliminating lead from used oil--just as it has been taken out of gasoline. "Your body doesn't excrete lead," says Jacqueline M. Warren, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Eliminating lead from used oil is no easy job, since there aren't enough re-refineries to handle the task. A tough new law could force Exxon Corp., Amoco, and the rest to remove the lead, but they would resist. For now, environmentalists may have to settle for a tad more truth in advertising.

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