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On a recent Saturday morning, state Rep. Andria Tupola and her staff cleared 12 abandoned cars, hauling them away on a flatbed truck, from Kaukamana Road near Maili Elementary School.
Many more abandoned cars were spread along the Westside back road. Most were burned out and stripped. Vines crawled into the interiors through broken windows. Open hoods revealed tall grass growing where engines and parts with any value had been excavated. Tires littered the ground nearby.
After her cleanup, Tupola counted at least 25 more cars littering three nearby roads.
“I was glad that I took the few that I did, but I looked down the road and I was like, ‘Holy smokes, how do we do this?’” she said.
Tupola said she’s cleaned cars and bulky trash from Kaukamana twice and from nearby Paakea Road 12 times in the past three years, but the problem is only getting worse.
In the past seven months, a glut of old cars has filled lots and littered roadsides in both rural and urban areas, prompting state and city lawmakers to search for answers.
Several factors are at play.
The plummeting price of scrap metal means there’s little gain from shredding car parts.
Before the Great Recession, even a useless car could be sold for $100 at Island Recycling, one of two companies on Oahu that shreds old cars into scrap metal for export, according to company owner Jim Nutter. Today, his company pays about $20 per car, sometimes less than it costs to tow the car.
About one month ago, Island Recycling stopped taking cars altogether so it can get rid of its current inventory.
“It’s a volume issue, a breakdown issue,” Nutter said. “We just can’t store very many cars.”
Schnitzer Steel, Island Recycling’s competitor, has machines to more efficiently shred cars, and still takes vehicles.
Scrap yards once abundant in Kalihi and other industrial areas are closing their doors, and some of those still open now charge to take junked cars with no salvageable parts. The city and some charitable organizations offer free car junking services. But junking a car legally requires title which, if lost, can be expensive to replace.
And many of the abandoned cars, both on civilian land and on bases, appear to belong to military personnel. By law, the city is prohibited from auctioning off those vehicles.
After Tupola’s last effort was publicized on Facebook, she received a letter from a North Shore resident asking for a similar clean up in his neighborhood.
The illegally junked cars affect different parts of the island in unique ways.
In urban Honolulu, they take up valuable parking spaces, says Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi of Makiki.
In the country, Kaukamana Road resident Pat Miller said arsonists regularly set fire to the decaying cars. It keeps him up at night, worrying the dry grass may carry fire to a nearby home.
“Everybody is getting really edgy about this around here,” Miller said. “We’ve seen children climbing on these abandoned vehicles”
To relieve overflowing lots, tow companies have relocated abandoned cars into parking lots of city-owned golf courses in Ewa Villages and West Loch, Randy Leong, deputy director of the city’s Department of Customer Services, said in an email.
The city can’t auction these cars, which are believed to belong to people enlisted in the military, without the owner’s permission. There are between 400 and 600 cars such cars in city lots or on golf courses.
If a civilian’s abandoned car sits unclaimed in a city lot for more than 30 days, the city auctions it without the owner’s permission.
A federal law designed to protect active duty service members from civil judicial proceedings forbids the city from auctioning off military-owned abandoned cars without the owner’s permission.
With only a name and address of the military personnel on their records, city officials are having trouble locating the car owners.
Effective this month, the city changed a form used by enlisted soldiers to include social security numbers and date of birth so they can more easily be located.
“The real issue now is how do we get to the 600, approximately 600, vehicles that are in the city’s lot right now,” Lt. Col. Ken Phillips said of cars that are believed to belong to military personnel.
Phillips is the deputy director of the U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Emergency Services.
The army has about 1,000 abandoned cars on its bases, where car lots are near capacity, Phillips said.
A new program seeks to remedy the problem on bases. It allows service members to hand over their vehicle for $25.
In addition, Phillips and a spokesman for the Navy Region Hawaii said both the Navy and Army are starting education campaigns to inform service members how to properly junk their cars.
Pono Higa of the Nanakuli-Maili Neighborhood Board said the city should take similar steps to educate Honolulu residents.
“I’m 27 years old. I’ve never had to (junk a car),” said Higa, who chairs the board’s transportation committee. “I wouldn’t know that system or necessarily think that’s easy.”
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine offered a different solution: “We should more aggressively go after the people that are doing the crime in the first place,” she said. “Put cameras in the places that the dumping is occurring repeatedly and arrest these people and put them in jail.”
Some people try to legally junk their cars and find they can’t afford it.
Handing over an old car to the city or a charitable organization, or to a salvage yard all require towing fees and handing over paperwork including the car’s title.
If someone wants to junk a car but doesn’t have the title, the process quickly becomes time consuming and potentially expensive.
Getting a new title from the Department of Motor Vehicles requires paying for registration, as well any back taxes and old tickets. Registering a car then requires a safety check, so that long line at the DMV could end with a blow to your bank account.
“Why is somebody going to pay $300 to bring their car up to date when they’re just disposing of a vehicle,” said Sean Ajimine, an employee at Auto Recycling Corporation.
In June, the Honolulu City Council voted to increase the vehicle weight tax two cents per pound by 2019
“We’re attacking the bottom of the market,” said Diana Benningfield, senior director at the National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii, which accepts donated cars.
Bottom line: it’s a lot cheaper to ditch your car on the side of the road than register it.
Still, state Sen. Glenn Wakai said car owners should be held accountable for their back taxes.
“If they’re in that situation they were probably negligent for months if not years,” he said. “If you cannot afford to pay for a car and the registration and everything that’s expected, you probably shouldn’t have a car.”
Pat Miller of Maili said when a car is marked abandoned in his neighborhood, it’s usually stripped of all valuable parts within two hours of being marked.
Employees at Oahu’s salvage yards follow meticulous and costly environmental regulations as they acquire and dismantle used vehicles. Towing and recycling fees can cost the companies more than they make from selling used car parts and scrap metal.
But abandoned cars leak oil and antifreeze into the earth and into storm drains. And those who strip the cars sell the parts on unregulated markets.
“They can undercut us easily,” Ajimine of Auto Recycling said.
The company pays for cars if it can resell parts.
Its doors are also open to a heap in need of proper disposal — if the owner can afford to pay. About four years ago, Auto Recycling began charging a disposal fee of between $250 and $500 for cars they can’t make money off of.
In addition, rents in Oahu’s industrial areas have gone up significantly in recent years, making it difficult for salvage yards to expand, Ajimine said.
On a visit to Nevada, Ajimine remembers looking longingly at a 25-acre salvage yard that sat next to three more multi-acre yards.
He compared it to Auto Recycling’s 25,000 square foot lot on Sand Island in Honolulu, where employees store cars vertically on a rack.
The combination of forces has caused salvage yards in Hawaii to close over the last few decades, Ajimine said, and less competition hasn’t made business any better.
In 2015, the city council signed off on a roughly $1.2 million scrap yard subsidy that allowed the companies to claim a 65 percent discount on the disposal fee when they delivered solid waste to the landfill. Almost $1 million of that subsidy went to Schnitzer Steel, a Portland-based company that shreds metal. Small, local companies that recycle old cars also received funds.
But the small companies are still struggling.
“If people don’t have an avenue to get rid of their cars what are they going to do?” Ajimine said.
“It’s tough. I don’t have an answer. And if there’s less of us here it’s going to be even tougher. All I know is our rents keep going up and it’s going to make it tougher to be in business.”