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Auto-parts recyclers push for regulation

KW Record – 1/8/07

Tasmin McMahon

Johnny Logel bristles when people call his family business a junkyard. Logel is set to take over an auto salvage yard on Bridge Street East in Kitchener next year, the third generation of his family to run Logel’s Auto Parts.

The business dismantles and recycles about 1,000 old and wrecked vehicles a year, draining as much as 8,000 litres of potentially toxic fluids such as gasoline, motor oil, antifreeze and mercury.

Cars are dismantled in an enclosed workshop. Reusable parts are sorted, inventoried and stored in a warehouse and resold. The company pays licensed haulers to get rid of antifreeze, tires and batteries, which are often recycled. Oil and transmission fluid is filtered into a clean-burning furnace and used to heat the warehouse and shop. Gasoline is suctioned out of cars and used to fuel delivery vehicles, and Logel’s sells freon to repair shops to be reused in car air conditioners

The days when rusting hulks sat in yards leaking fuel into the ground are gone, Logel said.

“The word junkyard is like a swear word around here.”

Logel’s and other legitimate scrapyards have been trying to clean up the image of their industry and are pushing the provincial government to crack down on environmentally unscrupulous auto wreckers.

Recently, Logel’s yard was used as a benchmark for a new federal program to cut down on hazards from recycling cars. The program requires wreckers to remove mercury switches before vehicles are crushed. A gram of mercury is enough to pollute a 20-acre lake.

But as the high price of scrap metal entices more businesses into scrapping used cars, Ontario auto recyclers are complaining their industry is poorly regulated.

Lax and inconsistent licensing policies across the province leave it up to companies like the Logel’s to voluntarily ensure their businesses don’t pollute the environment.

Regulating mercury switches is a good start, said Steve Fletcher, executive director of the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association, but governments need to take a broader look at the environmental hazards of recycling cars.

“They are officially putting a lot of time and effort into something that’s as big as the tip of your baby finger,” he said of a mercury switch. “There are just as many problems with the whole vehicle as there are with that tiny mercury switch.”

There are 25 licensed salvage yards in the region, but there are others who operate without a licence, dabbling in the industry mainly to salvage metals with little regard for how to safely recycle parts, said Logel’s owner John Logel Sr.

One of the problems is that there are no requirements for who can buy scrapped cars, known as end-of-life vehicles, Logel Sr. said.

Even for those that are licensed, there are no set standards for how parts and fluids should be recycled, and inspectors have little power to actively enforce existing rules.

The Ministry of the Environment has issued five orders against salvage yards in the region since 2002 for a range of violations.

The violations range from not properly storing potentially hazardous vehicle fluids, to burning waste, contaminating soil and releasing chemicals into the air.

The ministry issued two cleanup orders against to J.M.W. Automotive on Margaret Avenue in Kitchener after a neighbour complained in 2002 that the business had contaminated her yard with oil. In 2004, a wall at the wrecking yard collapsed metres from where children play.

Across the province, the environmental commissioner’s office has received three requests for investigations into salvage yards, including complaints that cars are crushed before fluids are drained, and that scrapyards are over-filling municipal landfills with “auto fluff,” the foam taken from seats and dashboards that are ground up to salvage the metal.

The Region of Waterloo requires scrapyards to get an environmental assessment before applying for a new licence. But there is no such requirements for existing yards.

Regional bylaw officers inspect licensed salvage yards at least twice a year, mainly to enforce a bylaw requirement, said Marty Sawdon, administrator of Licensing and Regulatory Services.

Bylaw officers have some power to enforce environmental issues contained in the bylaw, such as ensuring car batteries are stored off the ground and facing upward. If inspectors suspect there are environmental problems, they can report them to the Ministry of the Environment.

They also investigate complaints, but Sawdon said most public complaints relate to noise violations and scrap metal that is piled too high.

The region tried to deal with environmental concerns when it rewrote its salvage yard bylaw last year. A November 2005, regional report identified the environmental dangers of salvage yards as a “major concern” in the wake of several blazes at scrapyards, including a $400,000 fire at Logel’s in 1997 that was started by blow torch.

As part of the new bylaw, the region tried asking scrapyards to produce a letter of clearance from the Ministry of the Environment or undergo an environmental assessment every five years.

But the ministry doesn’t regularly inspect salvage yards and so won’t issue clearance letters. The region later realized environmental assessments are so expensive they would have put some salvage yards out of business, Sawdon said.

Ultimately, the region decided to leave environmental enforcement up to the province but would suspend, revoke or refuse to issue salvage licences to yards with serious documented problems.

No scrapyards have lost their licence since the new bylaw came into force, Sawdon said

“It comes back down to the question of jurisdiction and who is responsible for this type of thing and it’s our viewpoint that it resides with the ministry,” said regional clerk Kris Fletcher.

The Environment Ministry inspects scrapyards if it gets a complaint and also incorporates auto wreckers into its regional inspection plan, said Dolly Goyette, the district officer for the ministry’s Guelph office. She couldn’t say how often salvage yards were inspected under the district plan.

The region conducts detailed tests on its water supply and hasn’t found automotive chemicals in municipal wells, said manager of water resources Eric Hodgins. Metals tend to stick to the soil, rather than filter into groundwater. Petroleum-based products, like gasoline and oils, usually stay shallow, while drinking water wells are deep. “It’s very unlikely we would see direct impacts,” Hodgins said. “That being said, we don’t have a lot of specific information on a lot of individual sites.”

The province’s Clean Water Act, passed in October, is expected to give municipalities greater powers to inspect businesses like salvage yards for environmental problems and take steps to protect the water supply. The legislation is in place, but the region is still waiting on four sets of regulations, expected over the next two years, that will spell out details of exactly what information the municipalities can collect.

In the meantime, the region has put salvage yards on a list of businesses with the highest risk of contaminating the environment as part of its wellhead protection planning.

It also created zoning restrictions the don’t allow scrapyards to set up shop in the areas around wells, although 10 of the 25 existing scrapyards are within wellhead protection areas.

The region did run a program that gave businesses such as scrapyards up to $20,000 to invest in technologies that would prevent spills but cancelled it last year after getting an underwhelming response.

Depending on the powers in the Clean Water Act, the region may restart the program or try something new, Hodgins said.

That’s disappointing news for organizations such as Clean Air Foundation, whose Car Heaven program promotes salvage yards that recycle cars in environmentally sound ways.

Cars are one of the most recyclable products in the world, said executive director Ersilia Serafini, but there is no regulatory body ensuring that recycling is done properly.

“Really no one is looking at them,” she said. “They got their certificate of approval from the ministry and they can do pretty much whatever the hell they want.”