Panel to examine local ordinances, citizen complaints
By Diana Bowley, Of the NEWS Staff - DEXTER - Bill Murphy knows firsthand how frustrating it can be to work with a junkyard or automobile graveyard operator who snubs his nose at local laws.
The Dexter code enforcement officer spent years trying to get a former operator to comply with local ordinances. After repeated attempts to get the operator to remove thousands of used tires from his property failed, Murphy took the man to court and won the case.
The fines imposed upon the operator, however, were never paid, nor did the operator remove the junk or pay his property taxes. The town ultimately foreclosed on the Route 94 property and the approximately $100,000 tire-removal cost was thrust into the laps of local and state property taxpayers.
"It was awful," Murphy said recently of an experience that has lately become common in the state.
In another high-profile case, a Meddybemps man was jailed and later indicted for illegally handling hazardous waste at a junkyard that did not have a proper license. The former operator also faces $175,000 in fines.
These cases and many citizen complaints aired each year have caused the Department of Environmental Protection to organize a committee of municipal and state officials to take a closer look at the problems surrounding junkyards and automobile graveyards.
"It prompted us to sit down to talk about junkyard [and] automobile graveyard regulations," Paula Clark, director of the DEP's Division of Solid Waste Management, Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, said recently. Over the past nine months, Clark's office has been looking at the environmental issues these facilities raise and how they are regulated.
"There is a wide variation in how municipalities deal with junkyards-automobile graveyards. Some don't deal with them at all," Clark said.
There are more than 600 known junkyards in the state, which include automobile graveyards and auto recyclers; those who purchase salvage vehicles for resale or to sell parts. Many are licensed in their respective communities, but state officials believe there are many more in existence that are unlicensed.
An automobile graveyard is defined by the state as having three or more unserviceable or junked automobiles or parts of such vehicles on a parcel of land. A junkyard represents a field or yard used to store discarded items such as furniture, lumber, metals, garbage and waste dumps. Under state law, those enterprises must obtain a permit to operate from either the town or county in which they are located. The problem is that different towns and counties regulate them differently.
Many town officials said junkyard law is too vague and is open to different interpretations. "It's hard to have a real defined picture of what a junkyard is," said Dexter Town Manager Robert Simpson.
Junkyard and automobile graveyard operators are not required to license their facilities with the DEP. The agency's involvement results when pollution has occurred, according to Clark.
"We felt that this was important, that they deserved a closer look," Clark said. Already, the DEP has developed a plan and initiated some activities to address issues and concerns that have been identified with junkyards in an effort to decrease environmental risks. Among the three major elements of the study is the design of an educational outreach program for junkyard operators. This program will offer operators the chance to attend a series of workshops on best management practices.
Because the DEP gets lots of complaints from citizens about junkyards and automobile graveyards, Clark said her agency will look at how it responds to these complaints.
An evaluation on how junkyards and automobile graveyards are regulated is the third element of the study. This evaluation is being done by a committee of state and municipal officials, like Murphy, who are volunteering their time. Clark said the group of about 20, which has met once already, will identify what works, what does not and will determine if changes can be made to make it easier for municipalities to deal with junkyards.
It may be that the DEP can give towns better guidance and make it easier for them to adopt ordinances to deal with junkyards, Clark said.
That is what Murphy hopes will come from his participation in the committee.
"I wish that there was more cooperation, so to speak, from the state on the enforcement aspect of it," he said. "State law gives the attorney general, the state police, the town and county the authority for enforcement action, but it's always left up to the town to take care of it."
Although his experience with Daryl Woodard, now of Pittsfield, who operated the illegal junkyard, was frustrating, Murphy finds that an overwhelming majority of junkyard operators want to comply with the law.
Simpson said Dexter tries to be reasonable with junkyard operators. He has found, however, that most operators do just marginally what they need to do to get their facilities licensed. Others try to get around local ordinances by licensing their facilities as automobile dealerships or they regulate themselves under recycling laws, he explained. "There are so many outs for them now," the town official said.
Woodard, 52, claimed he had experienced no problems with the DEP while operating his business. "I was in compliance as the rest were in town, if not more," Woodard said. "They [town officials] wanted to find a way to get me out and they did."
The now-disabled man said he was actually doing the region a service by removing junked vehicles and used tires from residences along roadsides.
In fact, Paul Chase of Recovery Technology Group of Eliot, the contractor hired by the DEP to clean up Woodard's former property, said Woodard had one of the cleanest junkyards he has seen. The tires were clean and there was no oil or chemicals on the premises, he noted. He said Monday that 157,000 tires have been removed from the site to date with about 18,000 left to go.
Woodard is bitter that the town foreclosed on his property for nonpayment of taxes and put him out of business. He said he "went from a $400,000 business to nothing."
Simpson, too, is bitter that his community had to help bear the costs of the cleanup of Woodard's junkyard. He also found it troubling that one District Court judge essentially dismissed the fines because of Woodard's financial condition even though another judge, who imposed the fines, felt otherwise. In the end, the town expended about $5,000 in court and attorney's fees and a local share of $10,000 for the disposal of the used tires.
"It's a very, very painful process," Simpson stated. He said it is another example of the state setting a law and leaving it up to the town to enforce, even though the law is so ill defined it's hard to enforce.
Clark hopes that if nothing else, the educational program and the recommendations made by the committee will help eliminate such frustrations.
For more information or to comment on a junkyard-auto graveyard, call the DEP at 287-7688 or 941-4570.
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