Pilot project helps auto businesses go green

New technology available through a state pilot project is helping some Hunts Point auto repair shops save money, but its environmental benefits are what may have the most lasting impact for the community.

Fred Donnelly uses new technology to clean auto parts at Hunts Point Service Station.

New technology helps repair shops save both the environment, and cash

Inside the Hunts Point Service Station at 565 Hunts Point Avenue, owner Fred Donnelly stretches on a pair of blue latex gloves before grabbing a spare car part that needs to be cleaned. Placing it in a large white sink, he grabs a hose with a bristled tip that releases a cleaning solvent, and begins to scrub. Although new technology helps Donnelly clean the part with ease, its environmental benefits are what may have the most lasting impact for the community.

The new parts-washing system was installed last year as part of the state’s ongoing effort to protect low-lying Hunts Point from flooding, while at the same time making it a testing ground for environmentally-friendly initiatives that can be duplicated elsewhere. The NYC Industrial Waterfront Project, which was financed by a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, enlisted two nonprofits, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, to promote climate adaptation strategies in the area.

Donnelly chuckles as he recalls a time 50 years ago when his father owned the shop, long before environmental safety was a concern for the business.

“When I was seven years old, I remember going out to the gas pumps and filling a bucket of gas and cleaning off parts in gasoline,” he said.

Those simpler times speak to the larger problem today. The South Bronx is one of the city’s six Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas, so designated in 1992 to encourage industrial activity in concentrated areas along the city’s waterfront. City planners failed to take into account that all six are located in areas vulnerable to storm surge.

Environmentalists worry that flooding in these industrial zones could some day cause pollutants to be introduced into the local environment, said Pamela Soto, a research analyst for the Justice Alliance. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, she said, it was a huge wakeup call.

“If you’re planning a city nowadays, you wouldn’t put the most potentially polluting infrastructure right on the water,” Soto said.

The project’s main objective is to limit the use and improper disposal of pollutants in those industrially-zoned waterfront areas. In the South Bronx, that means the omnipresent auto repair shops, which use toxic substances in their everyday operations. The researchers assessed 62 auto repair and body work businesses in all, before selecting two to focus on.

Hunts Point Service Station long relied on the industry standard of spraying chlorinated solvents through aerosol cans to clean parts. But with the new cleaning system, Donnelly said he no longer worries about those cans lying around the shop awaiting proper disposal. According to the Pollution Prevention Institute, the new system could result in an 83 percent reduction in the use of hazardous materials in his shop, and $2,900 in annual savings on materials.

Just down the road at E.C.I Autobody, the Institute helped to identify the benefits of using a computerized paint-mixing system. To make it work, they helped arrange for a paint manufacturer to supply the business with free new technology that allows paint to be applied more efficiently by reducing the amount used on each job, thus eliminating excess paint cans on the shelves. The researchers found that the shop could reduce its paint inventory by about 500 lbs. annually, while saving $900.

“When they came along, they kind of pushed us to get it done,” said E.C.I shop manager Damien Hernandez. “We want to always improve.”

Another strategy involved the creation of a guide to best practices, which the researchers distributed to local shops. They held community workshops, used social media, and went door-to-door to share the bilingual guide so that even businesses not selected to participate in the pilot could learn how to lessen the environmental impact of their trade.

Kim Bawden, a pollution prevention engineer at the Institute, said smaller auto shops have the hardest time adapting, but that if they were aware of the opportunity, “not only will they see that there are some strategies out there that they could take advantage of, but also that there are resources out there to help them understand and implement these strategies.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation hopes to expand the project, said an agency spokesman agency, Rodney Rivera, in an email.

“This project confirmed that educating small to mid-size businesses in operating a greener facility goes a long way in improving the quality of life in any community,” Rivera said.

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