Borough wrestles with junk vehicle disposal problem

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004

Abandoned vehicles, many reduced to scrap heaps after successive attacks by vandals, have become glaring eyesores in parts of the Kenai Peninsula, even in areas that otherwise comprise some of the prettiest portions of the borough.

The growing problem has Kenai Peninsula Borough officials again looking at stepping up efforts to remove those piles of scrap metal.

In September 2000, the borough assembly approved creation of an abandoned vehicle abatement program, laying out procedures for tagging vehicles, notifying owners or lien holders and hauling the junkers to borough-designated impoundment yards, where they would await recycling or sale at auction if they had sufficient value. The law included provisions for hearings and redemption of vehicles by their titled owners or lien holders.

But that ordinance covered only public property and borough roads within the rights of way. Mayor Dale Bagley successfully broadened the program in 2001 to include removal of abandoned vehicles on private property with permission of the property owners. The assembly approved expenditure of some $75,000 to cover costs.

The program, which ran through the summer and into the fall of 2001, proved fairly successful. According to Cathy Mayer, director of the borough's solid waste program, the borough encouraged private property owners to bring junked vehicles to borough landfills by waiving a $10 fee and by not requiring owners to remove batteries or drain vehicle fluids.

The general public hauled in some 372 cars that had been on private property. Contractors hauled in another 98 that had been abandoned in borough road rights of way.

"It was a bunch," Mayer said. "There was also some other debris. DOT (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) hauled some from Nikiski. We waived the fee."

Altogether, she said, the summer-long program saw about 630 tons of vehicles and other debris cleared off the landscape and recycled. The borough didn't accept cars all summer, but it took until October to get rid of what had been collected, Mayer said.

By comparison, the Soldotna landfill collected about 240 tons of old vehicles in fiscal year 2003, and an estimated 250 tons in the current year, which ends June 30. In Seward, 103 vehicles were recycled last year, and there is an estimated 44 tons awaiting recycling in the current year. Another 125 vehicles await a recycler at the Homer Baling Facility.

Ultimately, the 2001 incentive program was limited by economics. Peninsula Sanitation, which operates the Central Peninsula Landfill, worked with an Anchorage scrap metal marketer to get rid of the hulks brought there, Mayer said. At the Homer Baling Facility, which is operated by the borough, a contractor hired for the program took until October 2001 to complete the job, partly because scrap metal prices dropped over the course of that summer, she said.

When the 2001 program was instituted, Bagley anticipated doing it again in five years. Now, he's thinking about pushing that schedule up a year to 2005.

"I would like to bring something forward next year," he said Thursday. "I'm definitely hoping the economics will improve."

Scrap metal prices are up. Indeed, recent strong demand by China for America's scrap metal is affecting the cost of new steel here, according to manufacturers and suppliers. But the borough has learned that higher prices in the scrap metal market don't always translate into lower scrap-metal disposal contract costs for the borough. According to Mayer, bids requested for recycling the scrapped cars stored in Homer came in about twice as high as they were in 2001. No contracts have been signed.

Meanwhile, the growing number of abandoned vehicles is becoming more apparent to those who live with the eyesores.

One 30-year resident of the Nikiski area who asked that his name not be used said annual trash clean-up days sponsored in many communities were laudable. But those programs can't address the disposal of tons of scrap steel, glass and tires strewn around the borough.

He said he had contacted the borough and the Alaska State Troopers regarding some abandoned cars in his own neighborhood and learned that not much can be done. Vehicles actually in the road are deemed a hazard and can be hauled away quickly. For those in the right of way but not actually blocking traffic, the procedure is somewhat slower, typically starting with tagging a warning to owners that such vehicles need to be removed or risk seizure by the borough.

The Nikiski man said he knows of instances where tagged vehicles had been dragged, presumably by their owners, just far enough off roadways to be out of the rights of way, where they continue to sit, no longer the borough's responsibility. In another case, frustrated residents actually dragged a wrecked Buick from the ditch onto the roadway so that it blocked traffic, and then they called the borough.

"It was gone the next day," he said.

The Nikiski man took the Peninsula Clarion on a tour of his general neighborhood, pointing out numerous examples of cars and trucks abandoned on the side of the road, as well as virtual junk yards that have grown on private property within eyesight of roads. Borough law does not prohibit a person from allowing wrecked and useless vehicles to accumulate on private property.

Society is at fault, the man said. It may be that the law needs to acquire teeth. He suggested such things as requiring that property owners qualifying for the borough property tax exemptions be limited in the number of vehicles they may have on their properties.

Bagley said the idea was interesting, but doubted whether it would be legal.

Nikiski certainly isn't alone. Abandoned vehicles can be found virtually everywhere in the borough, whether singly off the sides of borough roads, or collecting en masse on private property. Many such cases have existed for years.

Bagley and the borough assembly are well aware of the problem. Bagley pointed out that since 2001, succeeding annual road service area budgets have included about $10,000 for clearing abandoned vehicles from borough rights of way. That, at least, is likely to continue. But if it is economically feasible, the incentive program of 2001 could return next year, Bagley said. Mayer said a new incentive program might cost $100,000.

Meanwhile, borough landfills still accept old junkers at a fee of $10 each. Owners are required to remove batteries and drain the carcasses of fluids. Those items, too, are accepted at the landfills. Residents are limited to five cars per year, she said.

"As a solid waste disposal site, we are not equipped to handle large numbers of cars. We are not a recycling yard," she said of the Soldotna landfill.

Old cars and trucks typically remain at the landfills until enough accumulate to make it worthwhile for a recycler to come to the peninsula, crush them and haul them away. That's generally about 200 vehicles, though recyclers have occasionally come down for as few as 100, Mayer said.

While the borough might eventually waive fees and fluid removal requirements as it did in 2001 to encourage more people to haul their junked vehicles to the dump, ultimately it isn't up to the borough to assume the duty of cleaning up private property, Bagley said.

When people accumulate collections of old vehicles, he said, "they should accept the responsibility of getting rid of those cars."

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