NEW YORK—A sludge-like mixture of soap and gunk is routinely dumped into the city’s sewer system from more than a dozen car washes, according to a survey from WASH NY, an advocacy group.
Juan Carlos Rivera, a carwash worker, said he dumps the waste at his boss’s behest and that the sludge stings his skin and makes him and his co-workers sick.
Rivera testified at a City Council hearing Thursday. He has been washing cars for eight years at different car washes.
City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito is a lead sponsor of a bill that would require the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) to license carwashes.
A survey of workers at 24 different carwashes found 15 are dumping their sludge in the sewer, in the trash, or in the street. The other nine carwashes had their waste disposed of by a hazardous waste company.
This waste is entering waterways and continuing to degrade them, holding back their recovery, said Dr. Jack Caravanos, director of Hunter College’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences program.
“You really don’t think of [carwashes] as a chemical industry. But when you start assessing it, you see that the wastewater is a regulable substance,” said Caravanos.
If passed, the proposed bill would require carwashes to be licensed by the DCA. Such a licensing process would include oversight of compliance with proper water disposal. Owners would also have to show proof they have insurance for workers’ compensation and disability.
It is already the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Protection and the DCA to oversee the carwash industry. In a letter to the committee, DCA Deputy Commissioner Fran Freedman writes that the department has come across almost no consumer concerns of the car wash industry.
“Industries should be licensed and regulated by DCA only when there are critical consumer protection issues,” writes Freedman.
In the last five years, only about five of the 23,000 consumer complaints New Yorkers sent in were about car washes, writes Freedman. If protecting workers and ensuring they are being paid for their time is the lawmakers’ concern, Freedman advises them to consult other agencies.
The bill to license carwashes was written by Make the Road New York, which, along with New York Communities for Change, has been working since September 2011 to help carwashers to unionize.
Carwashers have already signed six union contracts with some of the largest carwash companies in the city. Instead of forming their own union, the carwashers were backed by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Activists and City Council members, including Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, rallied Thursday morning in support of the legislation.