NEW YORK -- A yellow forklift raises the late-model Chevrolet and gingerly removes the tires by smashing it to the ground until the wheels roll off.
In quick succession, workers remove the tire rims, unscrew the tail lights, chop off the gas tank and yank out the engine. The remaining hulk is then deposited on a heap of similarly shorn cars, stacked five high along the back fence.
Business is booming here at Satellite Auto Parts, where 70 cars a day are processed along a kind of reverse assembly line. The New York City Sanitation Department has selected this lot, amid a row of body shops in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, to receive some of the abandoned cars towed from city streets each day.
They seem to be everywhere, these burnt-out, stripped-down, smashed-in shells that once commanded thousands of dollars in shiny showrooms. They are strewn along the Belt Parkway, on the streets of Harlem, in Brooklyn parks and Bronx alleys and the marshes of Jamaica Bay. The Sanitation Department towed a record 178,304 abandoned cars in the five boroughs last year, more than double the number seized two years ago.
And guess who's to blame: environmental rulemakers in Washington, who have piled on costly restrictions against burning or dumping tires, batteries, gas tanks or any auto part touched by toxic contaminants. This means that junk dealers can no longer make money hauling away old cars and now charge up to $50 for the privilege, a tariff that many folks here would rather avoid.
"Everybody in New York knows someone who left his car on the street, so they figure what the hell, I'll leave my car," says George Fey, chief of the Derelict Vehicle Squad. On any given day, he says, there are at least 1,000 homeless cars awaiting towing after being tagged by sanitation workers.
Police are called in to eyeball newer models with apparent resale value, and about 20 percent of those towed turn out to be stolen. The rest are mainly 1970s relics that have lost the affection of their owners.
Once these cars are ditched, their tires, windows and mechanical innards disappear with startling frequency. "As soon as the plates are removed, there's people out there that feel it's open season and take what they want," Fey says.
The Sanitation Department launched a new program last August to discourage people from littering the streets with 3,000 pounds of metal. Two inspectors now track down owners of abandoned cars and, if the owners cannot produce records showing they sold or junked the car, slap them with a summons that can lead to a $500 fine. More than 500 citations have been issued in four months.
The daily towing and dismantling falls to contractors like Satellite Auto Parts, which handles half of Brooklyn (a second lot near Shea Stadium handles part of Queens). Satellite pays the city about $20 per car, then tries to make ends meet by selling off tail lights, front disc brakes and anything else it can salvage.
"We're not making no money here, that's for sure," said manager Joe de Riso. "We'll scrap a good transmission just for the aluminum."
De Riso, whose father was in the junk business, says it's no accident that half the cars his men pick up have been burned. "Most of them are insurance jobs -- people burning their own cars for insurance," he says.
Each car's serial number is forwarded to the National Auto Theft Bureau, which helps insurance companies check on people who claim their cars were stolen. "If you say your car was stolen on the 3rd of December, and we picked it up on the 2nd of December, now they've got a case," says Andrew Yodice, who runs the Canarsie operation for the sanitation force. In some cases, though, the car has been through a "chop shop" and its ID number scratched off.
With a connoisseur's eye, de Riso sizes up each vehicle as it is towed onto the lot. "That's a '71 Chevy Impala," he says from a distance. "It has a scrap value of about $40. But it costs us more than $40 to pick it up."
The impressive array of charred colors and twisted shapes -- "We've picked up everything from Toyotas to Mercedes," de Riso says -- makes the yard look like a pyromaniac's used car lot. Perhaps some of the models lack amenities, like doors and roofs, but there are bargains to be had.
While sanitation officials inside a heated trailer fill out five copies of Form 463 (the Derelict Vehicles Removal Authorization), Satellite's 30 employes, with only a garbage-can fire to warm them this frigid morning, begin attacking the latest arrivals. The results of their work are spread across the yard.
Tall stacks of tires, which once would have been unloaded at city dumps, are being trucked away (by the aptly named Grimesland Tire and Parts) for shredding. The charge: 70 cents a tire. A small mountain of blackened motors will be taken to a Pennsylvania mill for meltdown and recycling.
What's left of the cars will be hauled to an industrial section of Brooklyn and fed to a giant metal shredder.
Despite the frenzied activity, those directing the traffic sometimes feel as if they are just, well, spinning their wheels.
"When we take an abandoned car off the street, we're only making room for another abandoned car," Yodice says. "It's like garbage -- nobody steals garbage, we gotta take it away."