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November 1997
Volume 15, Number 11

Oil Slick
by Shawn Ritenour

Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency presume to protect us from all sorts of supposed evils. But in doing so, no bureaucrats, save the tax collectors, are more vicious in their trampling of property rights. For example, they have made life miserable for people who own auto salvage and parts companies, and the drivers who depend on them.

Salvage companies provide an invaluable service to mechanics and owners of older automobiles, providing parts at a fraction of the cost of newly made items. Even more crucial is their function as a supplier of parts that are no longer manufactured.

When the steering wheel on my beloved 1981 Ford Granada became loose, I naturally took it to a local garage. The mechanic told me that a part had broken and that Ford no longer manufactures it. My car was already becoming less and less safe to drive. Without this part, it might have to be junked.

Thankfully it was spared this fate. A local salvage yard was able to supply the part off a Granada on its premises. Here is old-fashioned recycling at its best. These cars would otherwise be useless trash. But the market economy makes it possible to turn them to good use. For all the pro-recycling propaganda you hear out of Washington, you might think the EPA would celebrate this renewal of resources. Not so.

Consider the case of J&M Quality Used Auto Parts, a family-owned salvage parts business near Buffalo, Missouri. Last year, after J&M had paid the usual $90,000 in taxes, the government thanked the owners by sending out the EPA to take a look around. The snoopers found that some oil from the junked autos was leaking onto the dirt.

The federal agents then informed the owners that, if they wanted to stay in business, they would have to put all their cars up on blocks, with gravel and steel drip pans under them. It is irrelevant to the EPA that J&M owns the property that is being dripped upon, and that a salvage yard is a naturally drippy place.

This is clearly an unviable command. And certainly customers are happy with matters the way they are. J&M provides a valuable service for customers, and business is good.

Has anyone checked oil leaks in the EPA's own fleet of luxury cars? We know the EPA is capable of egregious hypocrisy. In 1992, the fleet of fancy autos maintained by the EPA for its staff got an average of 6.9 miles-per-gallon. This is 75 percent lower than the fuel efficiency standards the federal government is trying to force on American consumers.

If J&M does have to close its gates, as its owners fear, the cars will still be on their property, some of them still dripping oil. Shutting down J&M will not stop the force of gravity. But if the EPA has its way, local customers will have to incur higher costs in trying to locate necessary parts.

Thank goodness my Granada is up and running again. I'm safe so long as J&M and other salvage yards stay open--and the EPA doesn't discover that little oil leak from my car.

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Shawn Ritenour teaches economics at Southwest Baptist University.

FURTHER READING: "Hazardous: The Tyrant's Plea" in Lost Rights by James Bovard (New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 69-76; Trashing the Economy: How Runaway Environmentalism Is Wrecking America by Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb (Bellevue, Wash.: Free Enterprise Press, 1993); "The Anti-Environmentalist Manifesto" by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (Burlingame, Calif.: RRR, 1991).


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