Junked car recyclers playing dirty, Navajo EPA says

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 10, 2011

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The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency is clamping down on outside companies that come to the reservation and set up sites to buy junked cars for resale to other recyclers.

Most of the recycled materials end up in China, which can't get enough raw materials for its manufacturing plants. There the junk is melted down, cleaned up, and refabricated into more stuff for us to buy at Wal-Mart (China's No. 1 customer for consumer goods).

The market for old cars has become big business in recent years as scrap metal prices have increased and, of course, the reservation is one of the world's great untapped sources for junkers, not to mention discarded household appliances - called "white goods" in the recycling industry - and other detritus of a consumer society.

But the Navajo EPA was forced to step in, said Director Steve Etsitty, due to problems being created by the auto shredders.

The companies would buy up all the junked cars they could find, then process the material for transportation off the reservation.

The processing involves crushing the cars and, unsurprisingly, this results in the loss of automotive fluids including gasoline, oil, transmission and brake fluids, etc. These would end up drizzling onto the ground and contaminating the soil that absorbed them.

This poses a concern because the soil will eventually be washed into gullies and washes, and from there into the region's surface water system.

When NNEPA enforcement officials began looking into the situation, they also discovered that none of these companies bothered to get permits from the tribe to operate on the reservation, the classic profile of a fly-by-night polluter.

So NNEPA contacted the tribe's Business Regulatory Office, only to learn that it wouldn't get much help from that quarter. Business Regulatory Director Victoria Lee said she has met with NNEPA officials but "we don't have the enforcement authority that the EPA does."

So far, none of the companies have been cited but Etsitty said the reason for this is that once the companies learn they are under investigation, they disappear.

The companies may also fear that their names will be turned over to the Navajo Tax Commission since, being unlicensed, there's a high likelihood they are not paying tribal taxes either.

"We're shining a light on the situation now so they know that someone is watching," Etsitty said.

He admits there was a benefit to the car buyers, who did after all get rid of a lot of eyesores. Abandoned junkers have been a growing problem on the reservation, their numbers increasing over the decades. Some had interesting stories that made families unwilling or at least ambivalent about parting with them.

But many more just sat around looking ugly and providing homes for undesirables, including hanta virus carrying rodents, feral cats and occasionally a family member in bad standing.

The companies buying the cars did provide a service, Etsitty said, but by trying to operate outside the system, they caused problems and made themselves unwelcome.

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