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Friday, June 29, 2007

Scrapyards fight bad rap, enjoy boom

When most people think of automobile scrapyards, they envision piles of dirty, junked cars, the grime of oil and engine fuels, and the risk of environmental damage that comes with car crushing.

Such assumptions are misguided, said Larry Brown, vice president of Jerry Brown's Auto Parts Center in Queensbury.

Brown insists the industry, which has experienced a significant boom in recent years, provides services that benefit the community on several levels, including the environment.

The obvious benefits of the industry are an alternative for the cost of new car parts and the removal of junk cars.

"We're the competition for dealerships and an alternative for expensive new parts," Brown said. "When we get a car, we inventory what's reusable: mirrors, glass, engines, tires, doors, batteries -- almost everything. Often, it's a savings of 50 percent of the cost of a new part for our customers."

When Brown's company doesn't have a specific part, Brown said the online network of salvage yards allows him access to more than 2,000 shops' inventories in the United States and Canada.

"I'll know within seconds when and where I can get a part, if I don't already have it here," he said.

Jerry DeLuca, executive director of the Automotive Recyclers Association of New York, said there are 743 automobile dismantlers in New York "providing a place for end-of-life cars to go."

In 1997, more than 4.7 million cars were recycled nationwide, according to the association.

"We take one to two junk cars a day from people who live nearby. Those are cars that would just sit there otherwise," Cornell said.

Brown said his company recycles around 1,500 vehicles per year, in addition to the 2,000 kept on site.

Additional benefits that result from the industry are reduced insurance premiums and reduced costs of metal.

Brown said the vast majority of his junk cars are purchased through insurance auctions, which allows the insurance companies to recover costs and therefore offer more competitive premiums. Cornell said he purchases 10 to 15 cars per week at the auctions.

The discount price of used parts also allows insurance companies to repair insured vehicles for less, which translates into lower premiums, Brown said.

"Ninety percent of my business is wholesale (to companies like insurance firms)," he said.

The recycling of scrap metal means a reduction in the cost of materials needed for construction or for building new cars and ultimately results in reduced need for natural resources.

DeLuca said the demand for steel has reached an all time high worldwide.

"Automobile recyclers supply steel and many other metals that are recycled and used in construction," DeLuca said. "Even copper piping is cheaper because of what's recovered from old cars."

"There isn't much metal that's not in high demand," Brown added.

And that demand is what has driven the boom in the scrapyard industry.

Brown said that, in 1995, his company was receiving about $18 per ton of crushed cars, whereas in February, he received $165 per ton.

And it's the industry boom that Brown partially blames for the industry's bad reputation as an environmental hazard.

"Crushed cars are the by-product of my business," Brown said. "We recycle what we can and crush what we can't. That metal (that we can't recycle) will be recycled elsewhere.

"A lot of people are trying to get into the industry because of the boom and are primarily out for higher weights in crushing. In order make money, you have to turn cars over quickly."

That inexperience, combined with the need for quantity, can lead to sloppiness, Brown said. And that can lead to spills and contamination.

Maureen Wren, spokeswoman with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said salvage yards are regulated by the DEC, and the biggest risk is groundwater contamination due to petroleum spills.

The DEC requires that all fluids are properly drained to ensure spills don't occur. The industry is also heavily regulated by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, DeLuca said.

Cornell agrees with Brown that the industry has a lot of companies that cut corners to make an extra buck.

"They give us a bad rap," Cornell said. "I live next door to my shop. I drink the water. I have to care about it."

"It's not hard to do this job safely, but you have to care

about the environment," Brown said. "You have to have good housekeeping and organization."

Brown and Cornell said their companies have never had a major spill, despite both being in the second generation of ownership.

Brown, Cornell and DeLuca insist that, when done correctly, the industry actually helps the environment.

The Automotive Recyclers Association reports that 11 million gallons of oil and 6 million tires were recycled nationwide in 1997, in addition to enough steel to produce almost 13 million new vehicles.

"We save energy by reusing parts that would otherwise need to be made brand-new," Brown said. "And even the brand-new parts often have recycled components in them, through the metal that's crushed and sorted."

By Melissa Guay

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