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Monday, October 16, 2006

Bring salvage oversight into the 21st century

Salvage yards have long been part of Vermont's rural landscape. Rare is the community or back road that doesn't feature a house with junked cars sprawled on the lawn or back yard, or a salvage yard with tires and other mechanical debris piled inside corrugated metal fencing.

About 70 salvage yards are licensed with the state. Environmental officials estimate that close to 200 probably should be licensed.

Well-run salvage yards are environmentally and economically important. They are businesses that provide income. They are the original recyclers -- collecting and distributing for reuse car parts, cast-off tires, recyclable fluids and more. And they are a safe repository for hazardous chemicals such as mercury that require protective disposal.

In the past, the state gave wide berth to these operations. That is no longer acceptable, however, as our understanding of their environmental threats improves and the hazardous materials associated with scrap, particularly trucks and automobiles, increases.

Salvage yards are an important part of Vermont's past and present. They must be better regulated to remain a part of this state's future.

All licensing and regulation of these yards should be moved to the Agency of Natural Resources; the definition of a salvage yard should be clarified; education and outreach to operators of salvage yards must be improved to encourage safer operations; and more.

Jeffrey Wennberg, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, told the Free Press on Friday that much of that work is already under way. His department and the Agency of Transportation are crafting legislation for the coming session to ensure that regulation of salvage yards is brought into the modern era.

Salvage yards are a potential environmental hazard because of the fluids and gas that could leak into the groundwater supply -- pollutants such as antifreeze, gasoline, oil, brake fluid and refrigerants. Even stacks of tires create the potential for a fire hazard.

Vermont is certainly not alone in grappling with this challenge of bringing salvage yards up to standard. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality and many other states provide fact sheets touting the benefits of salvage recycling, but outlining the proper disposal of fluids, batteries, wastewater, antifreeze and other materials linked to vehicles. The federal Environmental Protection Agency also provides information to states.

In Vermont, salvage yards are licensed by the Transportation Agency, but regulated through a variety of programs in the Natural Resources Agency. That is a complicated system that should be simplified.

Clearer regulation of these operations is a must. Any potential changes should:

Include ideas from salvage and junkyard operators, as well as their neighbors and local officials. The best regulations have buy-in from the stakeholders.

Recognize that some Vermonters have a few unregistered cars and trucks around to use for parts, and farmers rely on unregistered vehicles to run their operations. These are not typically the polluters that regulation should be focused upon.

Move licensing of salvage yards out of Transportation, and coordinate all licensing and regulation programs in one Natural Resources office. (Wennberg said this is already being drafted, which is good news.)

Include the personnel to ensure compliance with the regulations.

The commissioner said his department is also concerned about past leaks from salvage yards, even those that are closed or operating appropriately. Efforts to find and clean up those spills also will be part of the package, he said. That is appropriate.

Many salvage yard operators run a decent business and follow the best practices to ensure their operations respect environmental realities.

Others run their yards as they have for decades, unresponsive to modern-day concerns about the potential hazards of leaking wastes, burning tires, discarded mercury switches and other threats that ooze from scrap into the air, earth and water.

Vermont needs its salvage yard recyclers to stay in business, but in a manner that doesn't scrap this state's environmental ethic.

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