Indiana auto salvage yards are finding themselves in the crusher-in the clutch of regulatory jaws bent on reducing salvage-yard pollutants.
In barely two years, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has issued violation notices to 44 salvage yards, according to state records. While historical numbers weren't immediately available, "before, we were sporadic and really didn't have a widespread effort," said Amy Hartsock, an IDEM spokeswoman.
While on the prowl lately, the agency's jaws have been padded with rich Corinthian leather: It hasn't fined a single operator for violations. Fines can run as high as $25,000 a day.
IDEM officials couldn't immediately recall the last time the agency imposed a fine against any of the state's 663- known salvage yards.
"They've been here four times in two or three years," said Jim Adkins, whose Adkins Inc. salvage yard in Martinsville rarely got a visit in the past and was among the most recent firms targeted. Adkins "got caught with my pants down" for several barrels of old oil and antifreeze that were not labeled when inspectors arrived. Although it cost the firm money to have the liquids hauled away, "We've never gotten a fine," he said.
One of the most high-profile yards cited recently was the G.W. Pierce Auto Parts Inc., which butts up to U.S. 31 in Cicero.
Pierce's acres of mangled metal sprouting from behind fences collide with the sight of sparkling Saabs and Volvos parked in upscale office buildings 10 miles down the road, in southern Hamilton County.
The yard was cited for violations involving oil storage, processing of waste tires, oil spills and storm water runoff.
Pierce managers did not return phone calls.
IDEM began salvage-yard enforcement in 2000, after winning a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that helped cover costs such as publication of technical manuals and seminars.
Rather than taking a punitive approach, IDEM has instead sought to educate yard operators about pollution threats and how to abate and avoid them.
It published an 88-page manual that lays down the law and offers suggestions on how to comply on everything from draining oil filters to disposing of the precious metals inside catalytic converters. The manual was mailed to all 663 yards as well as to county officials.
"We're going to continue to provide oversight through site visits to respond to complaints and to continue to work with this business sector. Our focus is on compliance assistance and this is what we want businesses to understand," said Hartsock. "The fines are still an option."
Fines should be part of the mix of enforcement tools, said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. He said savage yards present a number of environmental risks, particular where gas and oil have the potential to enter a stream, lake or well.
According to IDEM, even one gram of mercury-often found in a single switch used to activate an under-hood light in an engine-bay-can make the fish in a 20-acre lake unsafe to eat.
IDEM published a booklet for yards that shows which vehicles have mercury switches and where to find them. The agency also has been trying to use a carrot in its message, pointing out that, in taking steps to protect the environment, "oftentimes businesses realize some sort of savings in the long run," Hartsock said.
Operators say that's true to some extent. At Dad's Truck & Auto in Cicero, workers spend time draining oil, gasoline and transmission fluid out of fresh wrecks before putting them out in the yard where they have the potential to leak, said employee Mike Cain.
That recovered gasoline is used to fuel the yard's two delivery trucks and, occasionally, employees' cars, said Dad's owner Dave Duncan. With gas prices high, "It's kind of been a free-for-all" among employees, he said.
Dad's also siphons air-conditioning refrigerant into a recycling machine rather than bleeding it into the atmosphere and potentially damaging the ozone layer. That old refrigerant can be processed and reused. In fact, some auto repair garages are willing to pay the yard a pretty penny when refrigerant supplies run low, Duncan said.
Some salvage operators are concerned that the state's recent effort to curb environmental risks could cost them more money, Cain said.
His boss, Duncan, said salvage operators should realize that even if they incur extra costs now for environmental compliance, they're potentially saving themselves money down the road, if only in reduced cleanup costs if later they sell their yards for other uses.
"It's kind of like the Fram commercial: 'You pay me now or pay me later,'" Duncan said.
So far, Cain said, state inspectors have helped the firm keep abreast of new and upcoming environmental regulations.
"They're pretty fair. Things are changing. [Laws] are getting to be like it's been in California" for years, he said.
Fair isn't the word Martinsville's Adkins would use. He said aggressive enforcement is fine, if equally applied. He complained that a Martinsville repair garage he knows of has not been cited, yet, "where you would walk the grounds, it squishes with oil."
Adkins figures he was targeted after complaints filed by disgruntled employees. He said his yard was designed 18 years ago to be environmentally friendly with the help of an environmental engineer. Adkins also said he spent about $5,000 on a storm water runoff plan.
"The ground is pristine. We had enough foresight to know you can't sell polluted ground."