Junked cars headed toward Blackfeet crusher

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BROWNING, Mont. - It's a familiar problem for many tribes: wrecked and abandoned vehicle carcasses strewn across their reservations.

But Blackfeet tribal officials are working to tackle the problem of junked cars on their 1.6-million-acre reserve. They've recently purchased a used crusher to flatten the metal hulks and recycle them as scrap metal.

"There's just a phenomenal number of junked cars around," said Robert DeRosier, the tribe's public works director.

A recent partial survey of the reservation documented about 3,500 junkers. DeRosier said the total number is probably closer to 5,000. He added that most residents can't afford to have the vehicles hauled off when they're no longer useable. Now the tribe is offering to come to their property for free, load up the cars and take them to a repository outside Browning, the reservation's capital. All that's needed is an owner's signature on a release form.

More than 250 junkers have been flattened so far, and another 200 are waiting to be crushed in the Browning boneyard. Tribal officials are still working on transportation and sales options, but they know wrecked cars fetch about $70 a ton and each older vehicle weighs about a ton apiece. The closest markets are in Canada, Seattle and in Plymouth, Utah. About 30 of the metal masses can be hauled on a single semi-truck load. Rail transport is also being looked at.

So far the fledgling effort is being run by the Tribal Utilities Department, which is devoting one day a week to collecting and crushing junked cars. DeRosier said Glacier County officials loaned a loader and an operator to help get things started. The used crusher, tracked down in Kansas, was purchased with a $40,000 loan from the tribal housing program. A reservation businessman donated air fare to help with the search.

"Once we can get the program going, I think we can be a self-sustaining deal," DeRosier explained. "Hundreds of people have signed up to have their cars hauled away. We have requests coming in all the time."

According to DeRosier, a number of area residents have dozens of broken-down vehicles on their individual properties. One resident has 75 vehicles, which likely puts him first in the most-cars category.

Not only are junked vehicles unsightly, they're also a public-safety hazard, DeRosier said. Children can get trapped in trunks or locked inside the vehicles, they become home to rodents, which can spread hantavirus and other diseases, they attract garbage and they leak toxic fluids.

"We were real happy to get it," Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Clifford Tailfeathers said of the crusher, which can be hauled behind a large truck to almost any location.

Reservation residents wanting to have old cars and trucks moved off their property can call (406) 338-7667 to make a date with the compactor.

"We'll try to make the arrangements to make it happen," DeRosier said.