Panel recaps tire debate

By Leslie Jorgensen

Colorado has earned a reputation as a cutting-edge “green” state with a government that promotes recycled products and clean-energy-producing wind farms in its efforts to save the planet.

Less well known, however, is the state’s reputation as a dumping ground for the region’s waste tires. The state’s mountains of millions and millions of discarded tires pose huge health and safety risks.

It’s estimated that 4 million tires annually are added to existing piles of more than 60 million tires at two state-approved monofills in Weld and El Paso counties. Another million are dumped at illegal sites — behind rural businesses, on the back acreage of ranches, in drainage ditches and beside highways.

The state’s waste-tire abatement program, created by the Legislature in 1995, has effectively increased the number of recycled tires. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, approximately 4.5 million waste tires were generated in 2006, and 64 percent were recycled.

Yet, the monofills continue to be overburdened with waste tires. A former monofill employee who asked not to be named, said that 2 million to 4 million tires are discarded at one state-approved site each year. He estimated that another million or so are dumped at illegal sites. He also said the numbers suggest that tires are being hauled in from out of state to be discarded here.

“Monofills were created when there was no market for recycling waste tires,” said Michael Blumenthal, vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA). “It was a short-term solution to a long-term problem — but that was before there was a market for recycling tires.”

With some irony, the RMA, which represents tire companies, has been on the front lines in the battle against waste tires, promoting recycling uses around the country.

In May, the association began holding monthly meetings with waste tire stakeholders — including elected officials — to improve Colorado’s waste tire abatement program.

According to the RMA, Colorado has more stockpiled waste tires than any other state — more than a third of all waste tires in the nation.

The state collects a $1.50 fee on each tire sold to help fund a waste tire abatement program. The fund is distributed to the state Department of Public Health and Environment for several programs, from recycling to higher-education research, and to the state Department of Local Affairs for community grants for cleanup and recycling projects.

But only a slim percentage of the estimated $4.5 million collected annually has been used for tire cleanup, tire recycling or the development of products and fuels derived from tires.

Not a penny of money is allocated to assist state-approved waste tire monofills, which are privately owned, and local fire departments, which would have to extinguish or control a blaze if a tire fire erupted.

“DOLA is doing what the Legislature mandated with limited funds and limited resources,” said Blumenthal.

He said that the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s role should be broadened beyond permitting monofills and registering waste tire haulers to include oversight of tire haulers and monofills, as well as increased enforcement and inspection powers.

“Everybody wants a better regulated and marketed program,” declared Blumenthal.

“Now there’s a heightened sense of awareness of the problems,” he said. “Our goal is to have a consensus of proposals by December for the Legislature.”

Larry Hudson, an attorney who directs governmental affairs at the Denver office of Greenberg Traurig and represents RMA noted that the association’s monthly meetings with stakeholders allow diverse groups with an interest in the issue to discuss concerns and solutions before more bills are introduced in the next legislative session.

“The meetings have been very enlightening,” said Hudson.

“When all this legislation was approved in the past, there was nobody involved in talking to people where the rubber meets the road,” said Hanover Fire District Chief Carl Tatum, who attended the RMA’s July 20 meeting in Denver.

“This is a first — and it’s encouraging,” said Tatum, whose fire district includes the Midway Monofill in southern El Paso County.

Other participants in the meeting included El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and Fire Marshal Commander Jim Reid; state Reps. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, and Marsha Looper, R-Calhan; RMA Vice President Michael Blumenthal; Kendra Morrison, Industrial Materials Recycling Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 8; and representatives from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and waste tire haulers and recyclers.

Stakeholders such as Tatum are well versed in the public health and safety risks of illegal and legal waste-tire dumps.

Stagnant water trapped in tires can breed mosquitoes. A lightening strike or arson, which is more common, can cause fires that generate toxic smoke and residues.

“If a massive fire erupted, we don’t have the money to fight it,” said Tatum, who routinely checks the Midway Monofill, which is located on arid property without access to water.

“After the fire, it would take an estimated $500 million to clean up the toxic residue,” said Tatum, citing an EPA report of similar fire cleanups.

“That shocked a lot of people at the meeting,” said Tatum, adding that his volunteer fire department’s meager budget allots $20 annually to oversee the 58-acre monofill on “property that’s valued at $1,200.”

“Where would the money come from to fight a major tire fire and clean it up? The state doesn’t have money. Local governments can’t afford that,” he said.

“That $1.50 tire fee doesn’t do any good for us. As a fire district, we’re not eligible to receive any money to prevent or fight fire at Midway,” said Tatum.

The volunteer fire department also doesn’t receive compensation from the fund to inspect the monofill, which has been found to be out of compliance with state regulations numerous times over the past six years.

Tatum said the site is finally in compliance thanks to GCC Rio Grande, a subsidiary of Mexico’s Gruppo Cementos de Chihuahua, which bought Midway earlier this year in hopes of using the waste tires to supplement fuel for its concrete plant in Pueblo.

Tatum would like the Legislature to consider diverting a portion of the tire fund to assist local fire districts in developing tire-fire education, prevention and coordinated fire fighting plans. He also suggested a “rainy day” fund to offset the cost of fighting a tire fire.

Tatum said he has been working closely with Reid and Looper to address these concerns.

The fire chief’s concerns are among many being discussed at the RMA’s monthly meetings.

Looper, who recently traveled to Canada to evaluate tire recycling programs, said that one major concern is the lack of enforcement and tracking of tires that are being hauled and dumped from out of state.

Currently, the state Department of Public Health and Environment registers haulers and requires them to maintain a manifest and provide signed copies documenting the tire loads to the originating facilities and destination monofill. No copies are forwarded to the state.

Looper and others suggested that the state maintain and manage records — and enforce regulations — and prohibit out-of-state tire dumping. If that policy passes, the origination source (usually a tire retailer) would be obligated to use only state-registered waste tire haulers, who would obtain permits for each load.

The hauler would also provide documentation — certifying that the tires were delivered to either a state-approved recycling facility or monofill — to the destination facility, origination vendors and the enforcing state department, and also retain a copy.

Out-of-state trucks without permits would be stopped at the point of entry to Colorado and checked at the point of egress on the state’s border to ensure that tires weren’t dumped.

The group also is debating whether the tire fee program should be overseen by one single department within state government instead of two. Other states, such as California, recommend a single department to consistently maintain records for enforcement and grants.

Public information regarding grants and incentives awarded by Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment and DOLA are inconsistently reported. DOLA records amounts awarded to counties and municipalities without any description of the individual programs. The Department of Public Health and Environment provides a description of the programs without recording the amount of grants or funding.

Some participants criticized the grants awarded for higher education research — an estimated $250,000 a year — because the money is used by universities to qualify for matching federal grant monies on projects that typically have nothing to do with tire recycling.

“Besides that, we’ve researched tire-recycling product development to death,” said Blumenthal.

“I doubt that we’ll even raise that issue because of the budget crisis for higher education,” said another meeting attendee. “Any bill attempting to change that funding will get killed immediately in the next legislative session.”

Another contentious issue is the use of funds meted out by the state Department of Public Health and Environment for a myriad of recycling projects — none of which utilized waste tires. In fact, the projects listed on the department’s Web site appear to recycle everything but tires; particularly popular are grants awarded for bins to recycle plastic, glass and paper.

A positive aspect of DOLA’s program is the awarding of grants to businesses that recycle tires for such products as playground equipment and rubberized asphalt for elementary schools. The only negative factor, said a meeting attendee, is that the successful programs aren’t publicized.

Another concern is a bill, sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, and by Primavera, which clarified that the $1.50 fee would be assessed at the time a tire is sold — but also instructed the state Department of Public Health and Environment to create a 10-year plan to phase out the state-approved monofills, effective in August.

“There’s a lot of unknown out there,” said Tatum. “Nobody talked to us about where these tires would go. They pushed that bill through in a couple of weeks.”

Tatum said Looper and Primavera are reviewing concerns and information about monofills that might influence revisions on the legislation, which Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law this year.

Bensberg said, “I believe that all parties at the table are trying to accomplish the same thing, but they’re coming at it from different directions.”

Bensberg also said there was a consensus that the bill should be repealed or a moratorium should be placed on it.

Perhaps the hottest issue on the group’s agenda is whether to renew the 50-cent tire fee adopted in 2007, which sunsets next year. Sentiments among the waste-tire stakeholders are divided.

In 2007, the Legislature passed the fee increase to step up the tire abatement program. However, half of the fee increase was designated for the creation of the Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Fund, overseen by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. The remaining 25 cents was added to the Waste Tire Cleanup Fund, managed by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

The fee increase sweetened the state’s recycling efforts — but the fact that it paid for the cleanup of illegal landfills — and not legal monofills — leaves a sour taste for some folks.

“Landowners are taking cash and allowing tires to be dumped illegally on their property. It happens all over the state, and it’s been going on for years,” said Tatum.

“And then, our $1.50 tire fee is used to pay for cleaning up their illegal mess,” concluded Tatum. “I don’t understand that at all.”