November 2005
Legally Speaking with Brad Tamarro


Sloppy Housekeeping Leads to Conviction

The essence of our mobile society is a reliance upon vehicles that have a definitive life span. When these vehicles reach the end of that life, they journey to a mortuary known as an auto salvage yard where they are prepared for their next life. This process includes storing, dismantling and crushing the vehicles, resulting in a variety of waste streams including spent solvents, degreasers, cleaning fluids, thinners, used oils, brake and transmission fluids, antifreeze, batteries and a host of others which may or may not be considered hazardous wastes.

The opportunity to operate a profitable auto salvage business comes with the typical web of government regulations requiring the various waste streams to be managed and disposed of in a specific manner. While the costs of establishing routine procedures for complying with this morass of regulatory requirements can eat into the bottom line of any business struggling to make a profit, the cost of not complying can result in a criminal conviction, damage to the reputation of a business, fines and/or a loss of personal freedom.

On August 8, 2005, a New York appellate court affirmed the conviction of a salvage yard for endangering the environment and discharging pollutants to waters of the state in People v. M&H Used Auto Parts & Cars, Inc., 799 N.Y.S.2d 784 (2005). The salvage operation in this case did not involve any unusual activities. As might be expected, the yard dismantled old vehicles, during which process, liquids such as antifreeze, oil and gasoline would simply drain onto the ground and remain after being covered with “speedy dry.” The yard also had a sump on the property that collected liquids such as water, oil, antifreeze and gasoline. A hose led from the sump to a hole in the wall that in turn led to the street and a storm sewer, which eventually found its way through a series of underground pipes to Flushing Bay.

The facts of this specific case point to a number of basic “good housekeeping” practices that, if followed, may substantially reduce or eliminate the possibility of a criminal prosecution:

  • First, the salvage yard should have removed liquids from the vehicles when they first arrived at the facility and then performed the dismantling operation on a bermed concrete pad that would have trapped any liquids inadvertently missed during intake.
  • Next, the yard’s entire spill plan consisted solely of spreading “speedy dry” on the affected area and leaving it there. If the yard had immediately removed the contaminated soil and stored it in a properly labeled container for subsequent testing and disposal, it is doubtful that the fact that the spillage happened in the first place would have resulted in a criminal charge.
  • Finally, a review of the facts in this case seems to indicate that the yard did not place the waste fluids in containers marked to identify the contents. Instead, the yard appeared to rely on a sump system that would pump the wastes to the street without prior testing.

In addition to these “housekeeping” procedures, other steps may reduce the potential for a civil or administrative action. First, an operator should determine which regulatory provisions apply to their specific operation and ensure that their procedures are designed to meet those requirements. Second, the operator should be certain that all permits, licenses, and spill and run-off plans are correct and current. Third, the facility should identify all waste streams and evaluate them to determine whether they are hazardous or non-hazardous. Finally, documentation demonstrating the proper management and disposal of waste materials should be retained in a central location.

The prosecution of M&H sends a clear signal that the government takes compliance with environmental requirements in the auto recycling industry very seriously. The best means to avoid a potential investigation, prosecution and subsequent conviction and recognition as an “eco-criminal” is a thorough understanding of and compliance with the environmental regulations that affect your business.


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