A new state law is expected to force most Virginia motorists to recycle their used motor oil, but officials acknowledge it hasn't had much impact thus far on do-it-yourself oil changers.
The state has no money to publicize the law, said Don Waye, water resources planner with the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission, and the fine of $250 for small oil spills is "pretty much a laughingstock and will do little to encourage recycling."
Moreover, the State Water Pollution Control Board won't start writing regulations to implement the law until later this month. And state officials disagree about whether the new law prohibits dumping oil into trash that reaches county landfills.
"I don't think it's changed a whole lot of behavior yet," said the commission's David Ruller, an environmental planner.
The law, which took effect July 1, prohibits dumping of oil into state waters, storm drains or on land. Previously, Virginians were forbidden to dump oil only into state waters.
"The law doesn't say recycle, but it basically rules out other options," said Ruller. The measure was approved this year by a unanimous state legislature.
State officials estimate that Virginians improperly dispose of 5.9 million gallons of used motor oil each year, dumping it down sewers, into the garbage or onto back yards, woods or streets.
The used oil contains hazardous chemicals, and can seep from land into lakes and streams to contaminate ground water or disrupt sewage treatment. Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), who sponsored the new law, said one quart of used motor oil can make 2 million gallons of clean water undrinkable.
Commission staff members say recycling motor oil is easy to do as well as beneficial to the environment.
The state publishes a list of service stations -- 180 in Northern Virginia -- that accept used motor oil from the public. Residents can also drop off oil in recycling bins at the Lorton, Loudoun and Prince William landfills; at the Interstate 66 transfer station; and at public dropoff sites in the cities of Vienna and Fairfax.
Lists of recycling sites must be posted wherever oil is sold, and the state Office of Emergency and Energy Services operates a toll-free hot line (1-800-552-3831) that gives callers the location of the nearest dropoff site.
To recycle, the do-it-yourself oil changer should drain the oil into a clean container, such as a milk jug, and take it to any recycling site. "It's easy for me. I put it back into the same container I bought new oil in and take it to the Exxon down the street," Ruller said.
For the service stations, however, it's not always as simple. While they are already required by federal law to recycle used oil from their own operations, the price they receive -- or pay -- fluctuates widely.
The major recycling firm in this area, Eastern Oil Company of Alexandria, has charged gas stations as much as 10 cents a gallon to pick up the oil, said plant manager Drew Frye, but is now paying 8 cents a gallon to those under contract.
Stations with no contract receive no pay and recycle the oil as a service to their customers, Frye said.
The used motor oil is converted to a type of industrial heating oil burned in large power stations, asphalt plants and kilns, according to Frye, and the price paid or charged for it varies with the price of crude oil. Even when they are paid, Frye said, the amount service stations receive is "really trivial."
Spokesmen for several area service stations said the pace of do-it-yourself oil recycling has picked up in recent years, as the environmental movement has increased awareness of the damage caused by dumped oil, and as the state has publicized recycling sites.
At Manassas Shell in Prince William, service manager Lee Latham said there has been a "massive increase" in recycling this year, with the station receiving 10 to 20 gallons of used oil each night.
Fazal Kahn, who owns Annandale Exxon, said customers occasionally bring in oil contaminated with gasoline, which could contaminate his whole tank unless detected. He said 10 to 15 people a week use the station to recycle oil.
At Vina Amoco in Arlington, day foreman Tom Nugent said the only problem with the recyling system is customers who refuse to dump their oil in the station's tanks, just leaving it on the ground. "Some of them are well-dressed, and we don't want to bother them," Nugent said.
Jack Collins, owner of Plaza Texaco in Leesburg, had more complaints. He said that customers have left leaky jugs of oil on station grounds late at night, and that so many do-it-yourselfers spilled oil outside his tank that he now requires employees to handle the dumping.
"One customer left two gallon jugs and a car ran over it," he said. "We had a hell of a time" cleaning it up.
"But if I don't do it, who's going to?" Collins asked. He said he had seen "uneducated" people change their oil and dump it down a storm sewer. Without recycling, he said, "eventually they're going to contaminate my grandchild's well."