Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ASC's "Environmentally-Sound" Choice Has Not Convinced B'ham Neighbor

American Service Center is the first body shop in Arlington to make the switch to waterborne paints, a switch that may be mandatory in the future.

The heat was pushing 100 degrees, and the weather was dry July 9, 2007. Buckingham felt just a bit like an oven. As well, the corner of N. Glebe and N. Carlin Springs roads smelled of chemical solvents at about quitting time that Monday.

One person in the neighborhood told the county that the American Service Center Body Shop where workers painted up to 250 cars a month on N. Glebe Road, was illegally dumping noxious fumes into the air.

An employee stands next to the open doors of the American Service Center Body Shop on a smelly day in September, 2007. (Click to enlarge the image.)

The double-wide, glass doors on the Glebe Road side of the building on that day were wide open, and two, newly painted, black Mercedes sat just inside. The sidewalk in front of those doors was dusted with paint from the shop floor. The stench was incredible.

“I don’t deal with air quality,” said Richard Freeman at that time. He is a county code enforcer. He said air quality is much more a job for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which said some of those issues were the concern of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In the late summer of 2007, Mr. Freeman said he was only concerned with overspray on the property, and he had seen the booths that the painters used and the certificates from the state saying that they were in compliance. He said he had gone by a few times to smell and hadn’t noticed anything that bad. As well, the fire marshall conducts an annual audit of the location and has found nothing wrong.

In 2006, the EPA checked out the site and found nothing wrong. In a recent interview, Body Shop Manager Jim Bergin denied having illegally dumped fumes.

At the time, you could not have told that to Mick Pulliam, the resident of The Carlin, an apartment high rise at 4300 N. Carlin Springs, who was trying to get the county to investigate. He said the stench in his building’s backyard, which sits adjacent to ASC’s backyard, was overwhelming.

“Nothing can be done unless the inspector actually sees the infraction,” Mr. Pulliam wrote in an email in 2007. “It seems that the paint trail coming from inside the building, and going almost out to the road, is not proof of where the paint is coming from.”

Code inspectors checked the paint on the sidewalks and determined it was allowable, as it was not overspray, but dust from the sanding room floor that the tires tracked outside with them.

The good news for Mr. Pulliam is that these arguments may be moot.

Last November, ASC switched their paints from solventborne to waterborne, and they have finished a renovation of the building at 640 N. Glebe that includes air conditioning, so the door should not need to be opened. They are first in Arlington to make the switch to waterborne paints.

"American Service Center has made an environmentally-sound decision to convert its shop from a solventborne system," the company wrote in a press release last April.

(The person who could speak to these issues at Specialty Auto Body, the other paint shop on nearby N. Quincy Street, was out of the office until next week, the manager said.)

Carlos Gomez applies paint using the new waterborne paints. The air in the paintbooths is filtered, and the filters are changed monthly, said Mr. Bergin, the body shop manager. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“Waterborne paint is almost odorless,” said Matthew Shaffer, the BASF paint sales representative at ASC.

Paints are roughly 80 percent liquid. That liquid makes it possible for the paint to be sprayed onto a surface. The liquid dries off and the pigment remains. Waterborne paints shift the liquid from a chemical solvent—such as xylene, toluene or methyl ethyl ketone—to water, and therefore the smell from the evaporating liquid changes from chemical to virtually nothing. As well, the air in the paint booth goes through "two or three filtering systems" before being released to the atmosphere, Mr. Bergin said. "It emits less...contaminants."

ASC Body Shop Manager Jim Bergin. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“This one was painted 45 minutes ago,” Mr. Bergin said. He stood in the finishing area of the paint shop where the cars get buffed after painting. If it were going to smell, it would smell the worst right where he was standing he said.

“Eventually, [the use of waterborne paints] is going to be mandated,” he had said earlier.

That’s what happened last year in Canada. California has already made the shift.

It’s more than a quality-of-life issue for people living around a body shop. The solvents are Volatile Organic Compounds, which, when loosed into the air and bombarded by sunlight, can create ozone and other pollutants. According to the EPA, one category of the solvents, diisocyanates, is the number one cause of workplace asthma.

In January 2008, the EPA issued rules that required many industries, including auto paint shops, to lower their VOC emissions, but they did not require a switch to waterborne paints.

Mick Pulliam is not so sure about any of this.

“We shall see if there is an improvement. However, I am not sure that the type of paint is going to change much. The idea of having paint fumes in my lungs does not make me happy. (No matter what kind of paint they use.),” he wrote in a recent email.

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