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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Green Yards scrap toxic liquids

This isn’t your parents’ salvage yard.

There aren’t any cars or trucks waiting to be stripped down or scalped for parts. The hundreds of cars out back are already bone dry, with letters and numbers scribbled on them detailing when they were drained and plugged.

Alongside are three giant concrete cylinders holding 55-gallon plastic drums containing oil and antifreeze.

Eric “Rick” Sojka, owner of Tiny’s Garage, runs one of the state’s 21 Green Yards, a term for auto salvage yards that meet higher standards regarding the storage and disposal of the toxic fluids sloshing inside cars and trucks that have reached their “end of life.”

“Green Yards is a change in the way you think, in the way you behave,” Sojka said. “There’s an idealism.”

Gone are the days when cars brimming with toxic liquids sat for months or years in a yard, untouched unless someone needed a fender or catalytic converter, as their gas tanks and oil pans rusted away and let the contents empty onto the ground, or maybe onto a sheet of cardboard.

Bad things can happen if those materials aren’t properly taken care of. There are several Superfund sites in southern New Hampshire at which wells were contaminated by industrial fluids that had seeped into groundwater.

Last month, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services issued a cease-and-desist order to ASAP Auto Salvage in Kingston, citing it for environmental violations, including dumping oil on the ground.

Fluids such as oil, gas and antifreeze aren’t the only concern from old cars. There are also transmission, power steering and brake fluids, and mercury in certain switches, along with other heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper, nickel, aluminum and arsenic. Plus, lead is in Anti Brake System sensors and batteries, wheel weights and battery cable ends. There are chlorofluorocarbons and Freon in air-conditioning systems, sodium azide in airbags and asbestos in brake shoes, according to a DES fact sheet.

All of them must be “evacuated” from each vehicle, stored and labeled, labeled, and labeled again, so they can be disposed of.

Although most salvage yards now drain and plug cars, Sojka wants to know what happens to the liquids after that. No one knows, unless they come from a Green Yard.

Here are some of the potential pollutants in “end of life” cars:

• Gasoline.
• Battery – lead and acid.
• Freon from air-conditioning units.
• Brake fluid.
• Transmission fluid.
• Oil.
• Windshield washer fluid.
• Power steering fluid.
• Differential fluid.
• Antifreeze.
• Heavy metals – mercury, chromium, zinc, copper, nickel, aluminum, arsenic, lead.

When the spent fluids are trucked out of a Green Yard, either by hazardous-waste disposal companies or licensed reusers of things such as motor oil, detailed records are kept to account for each ounce.

And the program works, Sojka said.

“You spill more in one accident than a Green Yard does in a year,” he said. “Green Yards are the future, the leading edge. Most people don’t realize what happens. We’ve been the unseen recyclers of the Earth.”

Close to 500,000 vehicles in New Hampshire are a decade old and will soon be recycled.

Cars and trucks are the most recycled products in the country, with 95 percent of them being scrapped, reused and recycled. About 10 million of them are recycled in North America annually. New Hampshire’s 150 salvage yards account for about 50,000 vehicles, according to a DES press release.

The DES Waste Programs Bureau has run Green Yards as a pilot program since 2002.

The salvage yards that enroll in the program follow all the state and federal regulations all yards are supposed to follow, but they also hold themselves to higher standards in terms of safety, the timeline by which a vehicle must be processed and the number of inspections state officials conduct, according to Sara Johnson, manager of the SES Pollution Prevention Program.

“They’ve gone above and beyond the call,” she said.

The Auto and Truck Recyclers of New Hampshire, an industry group for salvage yards, saw a need to improve fluid reclamation practices and contacted the DES to come up with ideas, Johnson said. Several sectors of DES got involved, and Green Yards were the result.

“Why? Because New Hampshire has groundwater,” she said. In fact, about 40 percent of the state’s residents get their water from the ground, as opposed to municipal water systems, she said, and many of the fluids in old cars can pollute those supplies.

“Salvage yards are very much an environmental issue,” Johnson said. A spill isn’t “just going to contaminate that property. It’s going to contaminate the neighbors’ property and move on from there.”

Sojka has been in the Green Yards program since it began and has worked with DES officials to help iron out what procedures work and which don’t.
“He is one of our best case studies,” Johnson said. “He really took the Green Yards to heart and made improvements really fast.”

Sojka said the standards are always evolving. The next revolution, he said, will be learning how to deal with hybrid vehicles as they reach their end of life.

“It’s very important,” he said. “Green Yards is the future for New Hampshire and for recycling. If it’s not going to a Green Yard, where is it going?”

By JOSEPH G. COTE, Staff Writer,

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