An Environmental Report Form from the state Department of Environmental Conservation has some auto body shop owners concerned they will not be able to afford the costs of staying in business.
"I'm sick to my stomach over this," Rick Forsey said. The owner of Performance Truck and Auto Body in Amsterdam, who has owned his business for 26 years, said at times it makes him want to close the shop and do what many people have done in recent years - go to a different state.
Lori Severino, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said the information recently sent to auto body shops in the Capital Region does not contain any new laws. What the Auto Body Shops Environmental Results program intends to do, she said, is offer a new form of regulation and clear up any confusion about the laws that auto body shops are supposed to be following.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Rick Forsey, the owner of Performance Truck and Auto Body of Amsterdam, polishes a car at his shop on Wednesday.
"There can be a lot different chemicals [in shops] that are regulated, and there are air pollution laws," Severino said, naming just a couple of the environmental areas the shops can fall under.
The program also provides shop owners with suggestions, not regulations, about how their businesses can be operated more efficiently to limit pollution and save money.
Sue Caulfield, the executive director of the Capital District Auto Body Association, said it is difficult to find the environmental regulations that pertain to shops all in one place. The DEC was able to put all of that information together in the packets it sent to shop owners, she said.
However, she said, with the economy still in a recession it can be cumbersome for shop owners to deal with a new set of forms. Some of the people who are upset, she said, probably find that the new program is hitting them at a bad time.
While times are tough, Rick Forsey said, that is no reason for the DEC to make a difficult situation worse.
"This is stress that I don't need," he said.
What the DEC program requires certain auto body shop owners to do to limit pollution is at the heart of the conflict.
The Environmental Report Form has a "yes" or "no" checklist for shop owners to follow, so they can understand if their business is in compliance with regulations. If the shop does not comply with a regulation, it will have to be brought up to code. Shop owners can fill out a "Return to Compliance" form, explaining exactly how and when they will be able to correct a specific violation. Many of the questions on the checklist appear to be fairly straightforward. They ask, among other things, if records are being maintained properly and if items are being stored in the proper manner.
However, Robert Fisher, the owner of Creative Auto Body in Amsterdam, said there appear to be some "gray areas" in the checklist. As an example, he pointed out that question six asks, "Is your shop operated in a manner to minimize odors or a nuisance outside your shop's property boundary?"
In the Environmental Compliance Guide that goes with the Environmental Report Form, there does not appear to be any regulation pertaining to this specific question. The guide does recommend, among other suggestions, that shop doors and windows be closed when sanding to keep dust from blowing out of the shop.
Fisher said he is concerned that something as simple as a window being left open at his shop could get him fined.
"The [small] businessman is scared enough without this stuff," he said.
The state also recommends, but does not require, shop owners use a ventilated sander or dustless vacuum system for cleanup after sanding. The DEC notes vacuum units are the best dust-controlling devices because they can control up to 90 percent of the dust generated during sanding.
Forsey said that is the sort of system he would like to get. But right now, he does not have the money for it.
Both he and Fisher agreed there also are issues with the spray guns the regulations allow shops to use.
Fisher said the guns, used for painting, cost about $600 each. However, to avoid wearing the gun out, it is best to avoid using it to put a primer coat on a surface. It helps to have a cheaper gun available to do that with, but those guns are not allowed.
Forsey said that from his experience, the recommended spray guns do not work well unless the air pressure to the gun is turned up above what is suggested. Doing that defeats the point of using the special gun because it leads to more paint particles in the air.
How auto body shops handle their hazardous wastes is given significant coverage in the program. While shops commonly deal with some hazardous wastes, how the DEC requires owners to handle them rankles Fisher.
Besides seemingly innocuous items such as masking tape or paper, Fisher said items such as the fluorescent lights in his shop are also supposed to be treated as hazardous waste. The more hazardous materials the state adds to its list, he said, the more it will cost for shops to dispose of them - a cost that will get passed along to the customer eventually.
Both Amsterdam auto body shop owners were surprised to learn from the form that DEC regulations consider wastewater created by washing vehicles a form of industrial wastewater.
"I can't wash a car outside," he said, in disbelief. "It's totally ridiculous."
Technically, an auto body shop could wash a car outside but getting rid of the water as the regulations require would be a problem.
According to the DEC, auto body shops must not allow water to run off site or soak into the ground. If a shop has a floor drain, only certain fluids - no oil, solvents or paints - can go into it.
There are actually a few places industrial wastewater can go for disposal, including a municipal sewer system, a holding tank, or a type of surface water (river, lake, stream, etc.)
However, permits or additional equipment may be required for a shop owner to discharge water to those places.
Fisher said some shops may have to go ahead and buy holding tanks for their wastewater. For a small shop, he said, that could be unaffordable.
While the water pollution section of the form is one of the many optional sections an owner can fill out, getting a look at the requirements sends a message about what the state expects from shop owners.
Fisher said the cost of trying to comply with every state regulation in the short run could be a problem for some shop owners. That could spill over and hurt many other people, he said.
While larger auto body shops might be able to quickly pass the additional costs on to a customer, he said, small shops have always tried to be flexible with their costs to encourage people to use the business. Getting the shops up to state standards could hurt their ability to adjust their rates. That could lead some to close their business, leaving car owners with fewer choices.
Caulfield said the association, which has between 50 and 60 auto body shops as members, has tried to make all shop owners aware of any services or information that will help them comply with the program's requirements and state regulations.
She said the DEC's objectives are worthwhile and their intentions seem to be admirable.
"The alternative to this is for them to go out and bring the hammer down on people," Caulfield said, referring to the enforcement of regulations.
Capital District shops that are part of the program are scheduled to have their forms submitted to the DEC by Aug. 15.
Completing the program does not guarantee a shop will avoid a random inspection, or an inspection prompted by complaint. According to the DEC, it will eliminate or reduce penalties for small businesses that detect, voluntarily disclose and correct violations.
Auto body shops that generate any hazardous waste and do not submit the form may be subject to a penalty of $1,000.
Severino said auto body shops in Fulton and Hamilton counties are outside of the DEC Capital District. Eventually, every region in the state will have to take part in the program, she said. Fulton and Hamilton counties could be included by the end of the year.
Having auto body shops take part in the program annually is not intended, she said.
For more information, visit www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/54767.html.