Tire dumps pose health, safety hazards

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS — A dry wind sweeps over tires piled into minimountains in the Midway monofill south of Fountain in El Paso County. Beneath the rolling rubber hills are millions of discarded tires in excavated pits — some of them more than 60 feet deep.

The 58-acre Midway monofill is one of two such state-approved tire disposal sites in the state. The other is a 120-acre site on Weld County Road in Hudson. The monofills are jam-packed with more than 60 million tires — and some think the number exceeds 100 million.

Millions of discarded tires overflow pits more than 60 feet deep in the Midway monofill south of Fountain in El Paso County. Colorado has more stockpiled tires than any other state, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Colorado Legislative File Photo

Colorado’s abatement program is funded by a $1.50 fee added to the purchase of a vehicle tire. The program has funded grants to clean up illegally dumped tires and encourage recycling — but some folks argue that the monofills have continued to be overburdened with waste tires.

“This is an example of another government grant program that you’re paying for with every tire that you buy — that isn’t working,” said Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, at a recent political forum.

“We’ve been paying the tire fee, and it is supposed to clean up the monofills,” she said. “We have the largest monofills in the nation!”

Based on Looper’s discussions with local officials and stakeholders, she estimates that there are 50 million tires in the monofill in El Paso County — and possibly twice that many at the monofill in Weld County.

The Colorado General Assembly passed legislation in 1995 to levy a 75-cent-per-tire fee, which was to have been used to fund the state’s waste tire cleanup and grant program. The funds were to be used to remove waste tires from illegal dumping sites and to recycle or dispose of them at state-approved facilities.

A decade later, Colorado had 40 million stockpiled tires — more than any other state.

According to a report by the Rubber Manufacturers Association, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, North Dakota and Idaho “either do not have a funded scrap tire program or are not using funds for stockpile abatement.”

In 2007, the Colorado Legislature doubled the fee to step up the program that awards grants to counties and municipalities to clean up the illegal tire piles — and, preferably, to recycle them.

Each tire purchased in Colorado generates $1.50 to fund tire cleanup, but no one in state government seems able to say where the money has gone.
Colorado Legislative File Photo

This year, Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, successfully passed a bill clarifying that the $1.50 fee would be collected at the time a tire is sold — and instructed the state Department of Public Health and Environment to create a 10-year plan to disassemble the state’s two monofills.

“With one-third of the nation’s waste tires, Colorado has seen a rapid increase in tire disposals that become a burden on tire monofills as well as public and private property owners,” said Schwartz in a newsletter to her constituents.

“In order for Colorado to maintain its leadership role in the new sustainable economy, we must address the scourge of over 60 million tires that scar our landscape,” she declared.

Discarded tires do more than blight the landscape — they also create health and safety hazards.

“A tire’s physical structure, durability and heat-retaining characteristics make waste-tire stockpiles a potential threat to human health and environment,” stated the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s January bulletin to waste tire truckers.

The bulletin noted that stagnant water trapped in tires can breed mosquitoes and attract rodents. The arid site at Midway, however, appears more vulnerable to fire.

“…tire stockpiles can catch fire from lightening strikes or other causes, creating tire fires that are difficult to extinguish and that generate toxic smoke and residues,” stated the bulletin.

Midway does have a nearby volunteer fire department — but the rugged rural community has no water delivery system, much less a fire hydrant. Firefighters have to drive 12 miles north, to Fountain, to fill their truck with water.

“It’s dangerous!” said Looper, who added that a rubber-fueled fire could burn for days and create a cloud of smoke over nearby Interstate 25.

“If that happened, they’d have to shut down the Interstate,” she said.

In May, Rubber Manufacturers Association Vice President Michael Blumenthal observed in an article in the RMA trade publication that, “It makes sense to impose fees on tires if the funds are used to address scrap tire issues.

“But when these revenues are hijacked for other purposes, a state may suffer far worse environmental consequences and cleanup costs if a major tire stockpile catches fire,” he said.

“In too many states, this failure to act has caused significant environmental harm and cost the state tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs,” added Blumenthal, who, in the same article, called Colorado’s record in managing waste tires “abysmal.”

Looper plans to meet with officials at Fort Carson, a few miles north of the site, in hopes of negotiating a plan to truck sand from the Army post in case of a fire emergency. The sand would offer better fire mitigation than water.

This week, Looper also traveled to Canada to research its tire recycling programs and to assess whether they could be used to alleviate the problems at the state’s troubled monofills.

Where have the tire fees gone?

If a fire started, Midway’s acres of tires could burn for days, obscuring visibility on nearby Interstate 25 and closing it.
Colorado Legislative File Photo

Based on the state’s 2006 figures, Coloradans buy nearly 4.5 million tires a year. Factoring in the differences in fees over the past 12 years — from 75 cents to $1.50 — by conservative estimates, the cleanup fund has generated about $35 million.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs reports awarding grants totaling $4.35 million to 22 counties and the town of Ignacio for tire cleanup and recycling programs from 1997 through 2008. The list is available on DOLA’s Web site, but there is no link to describe each project.

Larimer County received $1.9 million in grants to clean up a dump — not an authorized monofill or landfill. El Paso County obtained the next highest grant amount — $625,000 in 1997 — followed by Alamosa County, which received $438,798 for projects in 1998 and 2006.

Calls requesting more information about five of the 28 grants awarded to two counties over the past decade were not returned by Tamra Hooper, DOLA’s waste tire program communications person.

DOLA public information officer Linda Rice said she could not access the records. She referred questions to the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s solid waste division, which also did not respond.

And that leads to more unanswered questions.

Looper reeled off an “I wanna know” list of questions, including:

• Where are the records for funds and grants?

• Where are enforcement powers?

• Where are the documents recording tire haulers’ information, from the origination of tires to where they’re dumped?

The Midway monofill claims it’s overloaded from cleanups in counties across Colorado.

The monofill has made a profit over the past 12 years by charging a dollar per automobile tire or a tipping fee based on the weight of the truckload of tires. Yet, the former owners, Tire Mountain Inc., went bust and abandoned the business, leaving an out-of-control tire mountain behind.

The tire inventory enticed GCC Rio Grande, a subsidiary of Mexico’s Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, to purchase the disposal site a few months ago. GCC plans to utilize the tires to supplement fuel for its state-of-the-art concrete plant in Pueblo, which opened in March 2008.

GCC Rio Grande has improved the site — adding wide lanes between the pits in an attempt to both allow fire trucks access and to keep a fire from spreading. In addition, the company maintains a minimum 100-foot easement between the pits and the property lines.

Weld County’s Tire Recycling Inc. bought Tire Mountain Inc. in 2004. The monofill had literally looked like a mountain of tires. Tire Recycling accepts waste tires from Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.

The company estimates that there are 35 million waste tires — or 350 tons of rubber scrap — on the site. TRI also plans to shred and recycle the tires into a tire-derived fuel product for power and cement plants.

Perhaps the white wall in the tire saga is that, according to a 2007 report by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, a large percentage of Colorado’s waste tires are recycled into products from playground equipment to rubberized asphalt.

— Leslie@coloradostatesman