Protecting Puget Sound one fixed car leak at a time

A new campaign aims to give people fix-it skills so they Don't Drip and Drive.
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Checking it out ... to stop the oil from leaking out.

A new campaign aims to give people fix-it skills so they Don't Drip and Drive.

Don’t drip & drive. Fix that leak! Every year, 7 million quarts of oil and other auto fluids drip out of vehicles, potentially contaminating water and harming marine life. In search of a way to address the issue, the Department of Ecology and Seattle Public Utilities teamed up with community colleges and high schools to offer free workshops to help you not “drip and drive." The workshops are drawing eager participants.

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You wouldn’t think the underbelly of a Honda Accord or any car would draw a crowd. But then you probably haven’t been to a free auto leaks workshop offered by the Department of Ecology and Seattle Public Utilities. This is serious fun from the sound of it. “It’s shiny all over. She got her a new money piece. Oh my God, what is this.” Owners of new cars and old cars from all walks of life check on their car’s vital fluids, engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant and brake fluid, get tips on repairing leaks and learn about the impact on Puget Sound waters.

“Now we’re starting to see some uglies," said Jessie Ruiz, an auto mechanic and instructor at South Seattle Community College, as he guided the faithful, or those faithfully bound to their cars in a transit-challenged region, on what to look for. "Oil leak. I just call them uglies. Looks like your oil filter is leaking up there, the housing. Also, see where the filter goes into the adapter? It’s leaking there too.”

The free workshops with the catchy tags — "Don’t Drip & Drive," "Puget Sound Starts Here," "Fix That Leak!" — are part of a regional effort to get a handle on the cumulative “drips” from vehicles poisoning Puget Sound. Stef Frenzl with Snohomish County’s Surface Water Management Division helped jump start the campaign with a grant from the Department of Ecology. He calls it a “top-tier effort” to prioritize a huge issue the region needs to solve.

Jurisdictions throughout the Puget Sound region, 81 in total, are collaborating on how best to implement storm water permit requirements and educate the public on the extent of the pollution problem. A survey done by King County’s environmental behavior index found 67 percent of people would fix their car leaks if they knew they had them. “Granted, that’s what people say,” Frenzl said. “But it was good enough for us to say, well, this is a good first start. Now how do we provide an outlet for them to do that that’s a little more enticing than the status quo?”

Seven million quarts of oil drip onto Puget Sound roads every year. Not all make it to waterways, but a fair portion end up where we swim, whales live and shellfish try to grow. What do 7 million quarts of oil look like? Picture hundreds of thousands of quarts of oil lined up side by side starting from I-5 in Seattle all the way to 50 miles south of the California/Oregon border.

“Even a small portion of that could have an understandably large impact on the health of Puget Sound, given that this stuff is a toxic compound,” Frenzl said.

But what draws a crowd to a free auto leaks workshop, says Department of Ecology point person Justice Asohmbon, are pocket book issues. People come to learn how to identify car leaks and get a handle on the basics of an engine from a trustworthy source.

“Some come because they feel like they don’t trust their mechanics so they want an independent evaluation of their cars that’s unbiased. Others come because they want to  protect the environment. Others because they just want to learn how to maintain their vehicles.” 

To bring attention to the campaign, Ecology is running Comcast TV ads and printing brochures in Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, among other outreach efforts.

Up next on the air lift is an old Subaru. All eyes follow instructor Ruiz: "You got a crankshaft seal leaking and the rear main seal is leaking. Also, your oil pan is leaking.”

“Everything is leaking," says car owner Beverly. She knew her car was in bad shape but wasn’t sure how bad. She heard about the workshop from  a TV ad. “And I’m like, 'What, when did they get a class like that?' So I hurried up and got online and signed up for it and today here I am. They should have more of this. I really appreciate this.” She’s handy and says her mechanic will probably work with her to fix the problems.

Did she make a connection between car leaks and contaminated waterways before the workshop? “I knew the oil went somewhere, but it really didn’t click in my brain, 'Oh my God we really are messing up the water.' " Last Saturday she went to the waterfront on kid’s day and saw sheens of oil on the water. “Now I can put it together with us driving our vehicles and emptying out our oil when we change our oil instead of taking it to a place where we can dispose of it, you know. This is good to learn about. This is a 360 degrees circle.”

Beverly isn’t the only car owner who’s come full circle with the Don’t Drip & Drive workshop. Reliable cars that don’t leak not only save money, but, say those behind the program, they go a long way to protect the environment. You need to give people knowledge to take action, says Joel Banslaben, Seattle Public Utilities Sustainable Strategies Specialist: "It really leverages the most resources because once you engage the owner then you can make large-scale change.”

The goal of the popular program which continues through summer 2014 is to sign up 1,000 customers. So far, says Banslaben, they’re half-way there with workshops scheduled at four locations from Shoreline to Renton.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.