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Junk Cars Litter Byways as Scrap Industry Rusts

January 01, 1987|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

'Abandoned vehicles are a way of life here. You report them . . . and sometimes the cars will stay there for months.'

--Peter Mendoza

President

Wilmington Homeowners Assn.

Jo Ann Wysocki had tired of hearing about abandoned cars in Wilmington. So when her friends complained about a dilapidated Volkswagen lying derelict behind a bowling alley, Wysocki decided to pick up the phone and report it.

The date was July 8, 1985.

"At the time I thought, 'Oh, they'll just come out and take care of it,' " Wysocki said. But it never happened. Last month, Wysocki said, she saw the same rusted hulk--and another one beside it--on the same central-Wilmington site. And in the meantime, the community's abandoned-car problem has only worsened.

Wilmington residents now point sadly to a bumper crop of the battered, unwanted vehicles. The useless hulks have rolled in like a veritable motorcade onto streets, fields and parking lots.

"It's a problem Wilmington has always had, unfortunately," Wysocki said. "But I definitely believe it's gotten worse. I actually see people living in those cars. It keeps them out of the rain."

Peter Mendoza, president of the 500-member Wilmington Homeowners Assn., said some of the vehicles appear to be used as hiding places for illegal drugs; others appear to be not-so-clandestine meeting places for prostitution.

'Way of Life Here'

"Abandoned vehicles are a way of life here," Mendoza said. "You report them . . . and sometimes the cars will stay there for months."

The problem is not that too many cars are getting old and breaking down. Rather, the causes lie deep in an industry that most residents never see or even think about: the noisy, never-ending process of auto shredding, where unusable wrecked cars are turned into recyclable steel.

In recent years, that industry has run head-on into difficult economic times--caused by tough new environmental laws, rising costs and sagging prices for scrap steel. The result has been a bottleneck in the normal life cycle of cars.

Today, industry leaders say, too few cars are going that final mile. Instead, they are being left on city streets, particularly in blue-collar communities like Wilmington, East Los Angeles and portions of the San Fernando Valley, where large numbers of older, poorly running cars help fuel the problem.

"We're talking about . . . tens of thousands of cars each year" abandoned in Los Angeles, said Jeff Druyun, chairman of a Los Angeles city task force that was convened in December to address the problem. "The streets can be absolutely cleaned of cars and trash, and two days later (abandoned) cars are reappearing on those same streets. Literally, as fast as streets can be cleaned of these hulks . . . new ones are appearing."

200 Junkyards

The task force, established by harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and San Fernando Valley Councilman Joel Wachs, will look closely at Wilmington, where nearly 200 junkyards already are overflowing with broken-down cars, Druyun said. It also will address the operation of giant auto-shredding plants like the Hugo Neu-Proler Co. on Terminal Island, the West Coast's largest recycler of junk cars.

Hugo Neu-Proler is typical of major shredding operations. The 22-acre plant is a surreal world, where mountainous heaps of scrap metal extend nearly as far as the eye can see. Trucks arrive every day carrying hundreds of cars, crushed into cubes, mostly from junkyards that no longer need them for parts, said Jim Wotherspoon, the company's director of safety and environmental management.

Those cars travel one by one up a steep conveyor and tumble into the shredder, where they are ripped to pieces by 500-pound hammers and massive electromagnets.

Hugo Neu-Proler and two similar plants--Clean Steel Inc. on the Carson-Long Beach border and Orange County Steel Salvage Inc. in Anaheim--handle virtually all of the auto shredding for Los Angeles and Orange counties, industry officials say.

Price of Cars Down

But the three plants, which now process about 55,000 cars a month, are well below capacity and are paying too little for broken-down cars to bring them in off the streets, plant operators said.

"The only thing that's caused this (abandoned-car) problem is the shredders not shredding," Wotherspoon said. "We could run a lot more (cars) than we do. We could handle . . . practically all the (junk) cars in Southern California."

One reason for the low volume has been the low export value of scrap metal, according to industry officials. In 1982, shredding firms got about $125 a ton for scrap steel delivered to Japan, but in 1984 they got only about $75 at ton, said Harry Faversham, executive vice president of Clean Steel in Carson.

Japan, which once imported great volumes of scrap from West Coast shredding plants, has cut back heavily on its steel production, Faversham said. At the same time, the California steel market has declined severely; only one small mill in San Bernardino County still operates and purchases scrap metal, Faversham said.

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