The way Ken Gold sees things, the “tree huggers” have got it all wrong.
The auto recycling business he and his son David have built from scratch in the wilds of northeast Scarborough, now smack in the middle of the newly created Rouge River National Park, isn’t the problem.
“The park just isn’t compatible with the business,” he growls.
To the coalition of environmental groups who have lobbied for a decade or more to create the park among 5,000 hectares of land stretching from Scarborough to Markham and proclaimed by the federal government last spring, Standard Auto Wreckers is an eyesore to be banished at all costs.
Much to their chagrin, Gold isn’t budging.
Even more galling, he’s digging in his heels and preparing to stare them down, to the delight of the gearheads and parts hounds who make the pilgrimage to scavenge from cars dating back to the 1970s, stacked by make and model year throughout the 4.2-hectare, open-air yard.
Alan Wells, chairman of the Rouge Park Alliance, which is now responsible for developing the park programs, sees Standard as a long-running headache that he hopes can be resolved amicably.
“Ideally they would be relocated to another location,” he says, adding that auto recycling is a necessary, desirable and worthy business — just not in that location.
“There are other businesses in the area, some fit right in, like a pick-your-own garden and the other is a dog kennel.”
The point, maintains a feisty and unrepentant Gold, is that when he opened his business in 1979, that part of Scarborough, north of the Zoo at Sewells Rd. just south of Steeles Ave. E., was scrubland occupied by farms or lying fallow.
Nobody much cared when Standard was stripping cars back then among the farm fields and undeveloped suburbs, with the reek of animal manure matched by the stench from the Beare Landfill site, depending on which way the wind was blowing.
It was too far from decent roads, there were too many low-headroom, single-lane bridges that couldn’t accommodate trucks, steel-mesh bridges that couldn’t handle heavy traffic and twisting roads winding across the hilly landscape of the Rouge Valley. Sewells Rd. is still a pitifully paved, axle-busting stretch of asphalt.
But Gold saw the opportunity for an auto wreckers — or vehicle reclamation and disassembly facility — and Standard has become a mecca for gearheads and mechanics in east Toronto. It’s a slick, fully computerized, well-marketed operation with a call centre in the front office and an army of disassemblers and equipment operators in the back.
Ironically, auto wrecking is one of the leaders in environmentally sustainable industry: Recycling car parts has always made more sense than just sending them to the smelter, and 76 per cent of a car can be recycled — from the tires and gas to the fluids and, of course, the parts.
Need a door for a 2006 Ford Taurus? Right over there. A bumper for a 2003 Dodge Dakota? Go help yourself in the U-Pull-It section.
However, one man’s objet d’art is another’s blight, and success is sometimes a curse.
The first salvo the in the war against Standard came when environmental groups organized a mass complaint campaign, citing the litter and discarded car parts at the side of Sewells Rd. outside the yard.
“People would literally throw away the parts they replaced at the roadside,” says Wells.
Bylaw enforcement and police were pressed to drive up to the uninhabited corner of Scarborough to write tickets for “illegally” parked cars.
Four years ago, Gold cried enough and organized a meeting with city officials to reach a truce.
“It wasn’t us; it was our customers,” he says. “They said it was costing them $100,000 a year to clean up Sewells Rd. — these tree-huggers really exaggerate. So I said, ‘We’ll keep it clean.’ And we do.”
Standard has also installed video cameras at the gates and along the perimeter to deter dumping and has “spent hundreds of thousands in equipment to drain and recycle all the fluids from incoming vehicles.”
But the main point, says Gold, is that Standard was there long before anyone talked about a park.
Indeed, the concept of a park was first raised in 1984, but didn’t really get traction until about the mid 1990s.
Wells positions himself as a moderate, adding expropriation isn’t in the cards. Negotiation and compromise remain the best options.
He does, however, cite leaks from the site, especially a November 2010 spill that the Ministry of Environment is still working through with Gold.
Vehicle fluids stored in a container provided by a subcontractor leaked into Little Rouge Creek, which connects to the Rouge River. Standard immediately brought in crews to contain and clean up.
Wells says that spill is precisely why the business is incompatible with the park.
Gold counters the leak was the result of a third-party supplier and was the first incident since 1979.
He says he cares as much about the environment as anyone. He’s donated to local tree-planting causes, brought in policies and equipment to ensure there’s no damage, and complies with all laws. He’s a major proponent of charitycar.ca, which issues tax receipts for cars signed over to an autowrecker.
On the surface, however, it’s a dirty business by definition. The yard is muddy in winter, spring and fall, and dusty in summer. Although it generates no fumes or noise, meticulous care has to be taken to prevent spills.
Today, Standard is a multi-million-dollar operation processing up to 500 vehicles per week. It’s counterintuitive to the collection of old school portables, construction trailers and converted shipping containers serving as offices and warehousing.
“We can’t build anything here and there are no sewers,” explains David, a third-generation recycler whose grandfather ran Boston Auto Wreckers on McCormack St. back in the day, as he proudly leads a tour through the rabbit warren.
Amidst the apparent chaos, there’s a finely tuned machine. Every vehicle is marked, catalogued and put online, then drained of fluids such as antifreeze, oil, gas, and hydraulics, which are stored in tanks and recycled.
“It’s then left in the yard until we sell the parts, and then it’s brought in to be stripped,” says David.
Depending on the age of the car, every serviceable item is taken: copper wiring, alternators, tires, transmissions, motors, springs and rotors. “We’ve had cars with 20 or 30 kilometres on them come in as writeoffs.”
Scrap cars fetch big money, as yards compete for parts. A $200 investment in a wreck can generate $5,000 in part sales, but the process is labour-intensive and requires space. There aren’t too many yards left in Toronto, as land values soar.
The Golds have grown the business to include a facility in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and now boast more than 10,000 customers and 120 employees in Scarborough alone.
“I really love this business,” Ken Gold says. “I don’t want to sell. I was offered millions a few years ago but I don’t need the money. I’ve been lucky. If they wanted to buy me out, it would cost millions and millions of dollars. What I want more than money is a swap for land so I can move the business.”
Although Wells says a property near Hwy. 407 owned by Ontario Realty Corp. has been discussed, there’s been nothing definitive.
Meanwhile, Wells and the Rouge Park Alliance have their work cut out to prepare the park for its launch next spring, and are busy mapping out trails, tours and a camp named after Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki.
Gold would be happy to give hikers tours of his yard to demonstrate a sustainable business model, but doubts Wells will take him up on the offer.