COLUMN ONE : Beyond the End of the Road : Old tires have long been an environmental pain in the neck. Despite shredding, chopping, grinding, burning, burying and dumping, they're a bigger nuisance than ever.


In his relentless celebration of American folkways, Norman Rockwell transformed derelict automobile tires into little petunia beds and children's swings--testament to Yankee thrift and the creativity of ordinary folks who extracted their last nickel's worth.

Sadly, nobody else has so deftly dispatched worn-out tires into a useful hereafter.

Long a national nuisance, they are piling up across the country faster than ever.

From coast to coast, they are being shredded, chopped, ground, burned, buried, dumped in the ocean and exported to the Third World. They are turned into jogging tracks, crash barriers, jungle gyms, mud flaps, sandals, doormats and hockey pucks. But, despite all of this and a flurry of regulations from aroused statehouses, less than 4% are recycled. The rest are still accumulating in vermin- and mosquito-infested heaps, embarrassing environmental-protection authorities and inviting arsonists.

They are banned from half of the country's landfills and being shut out of more every week because of their shape. They take up too much valuable space and trap air, causing them to resurface, as sullen and indestructible as ever.

With the Environmental Protection Agency projecting a 50% reduction in landfill space by the turn of the century and 80% by the year 2010, tires appear headed for universal banishment from the family of ordinary garbage.

"The environmental movement doesn't want you to put them in the ground, they don't want you to burn them, they don't want you to put them in the sea and, presumably, they don't want you to send them into space," lamented Don Wilson, the principal lobbyist for the National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Assn. "But they have to go somewhere."

Arriving home in Buffalo, N. Y., one day recently, John Spagnoli, a regional director of the New York State Department of Environmental Quality, looked out an airplane window and saw a huge truckload being dumped off the end of the runway.

In the hierarchy of waste hazards, tires trail far behind nuclear and toxic wastes that pose direct hazards to land, air and water, but they are politically and physically incendiary. "Tires in themselves are not something that I am terribly concerned about," Spagnoli said, "but I've got tire piles all over the place, one with six or eight million tires, and within the next year or two or three, I'm going to have a fire, and the whole thing is going to come to a head."

It is not an idle concern. New York had a major tire fire just last year near Albany. In February, environmental catastrophe was averted in Canada when firefighters extinguished a blaze that had burned for 17 days in an illegal 14-million-tire dump near Toronto.

The most disastrous tire fire in history burned itself out at Winchester, Va., in July, 1984, but the mess it made remains.

In nine months, the blaze consumed 5 million to 7 million tires, polluted the air in four states and contaminated the ground water. After state and federal expenditures of $4 million, the EPA still has not settled on a plan for cleaning up the zinc contamination of the soil and the water of a nearby lake and the holding pond that caught the boiling oil.

It is expected that a water-treatment plant will have to be constructed on the site before the polluted water now being diverted into the holding pond can be allowed to flow into the scenic Shenandoah River.

The list of lesser disasters, led by fires in Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas, is long. By some estimates, there may be 3 billion scrap automobile tires in legal and illegal stockpiles, with another 250 million being thrown away every year. Eighty-five percent of them will go into stockpiles, illegal dumps or landfills.

Lying about, they attract not only arsonists, rats and garden-variety mosquitoes, but the Asian Tiger Mosquito, a known vector of dengue fever in the Far East and shown in the laboratory to transmit encephalitis and a number of less dangerous viral infections.

Believed to have come into the United States in truck tires imported for recapping, the insect has now been identified in 120 counties in 17 states, and as far north as Chicago.

Because tire piles provide watery breeding sites for all manner of mosquitoes, the arrival of the Asian Tigers produced a wave of pressures to get tires into landfills. The United States now requires that tire casings brought in from Asia for recapping first must be fumigated, steam cleaned or otherwise heat treated.

Although the mosquito remains of concern to public health officials, the national garbage crisis and the shortage of landfills has abated the rush to dispose of tires in landfills.

Statutes regulating disposal had been put on the books in 18 states by the end of last year, with an equal number expected to tackle new legislative proposals in 1990.

Several states, including California, have attached fees to tires, creating funds for disposal or recycling, and others have put sticker fees on new cars. Requirements have been laid down for stockpilers and for "casing jockeys" who make a buck by taking old tires off the hands of retailers.

In Oregon, a state permit is required by anyone transporting more than 10 tires, and heavy fines have been levied against stockpilers operating without permits or ignoring fire-safety requirements.

Minnesota's Legislature--the first such body to appropriate money for tire disposal--banned dumping five years ago and mandated a vigorous effort to clean up existing tire piles, using chipped casings for fill in highway-construction projects.

But with the problem growing worse and occasionally causing friction between states as junk tires cross borders, creating illegal dumps, there is now a move toward federal legislation making tire manufacturers and importers responsible for the recycling of an increasing proportion of their products.

A recycling incentive bill introduced in the House by Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) and in the Senate by Sens. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) would require tire manufacturers and importers to recycle 5% of their products. The requirement, enforced by the EPA, would be increased 5% each year, reaching 50% by the turn of the century.

Given governments' lack of success in handling the problem so far, the idea of the legislation now before Congress is to create a market for junk tires and jump-start a recycling industry. Tire manufacturers and importers would either recycle old casings themselves, putting the material back into the production of new tires, or purchase credits from recycling operations.

Contrary to popular notions, scrap tires are not worthless--on the average, each one contains 2.5 gallons of oil--and neither is there any dearth of ideas for things to do with them.

It's just that there are so many tires--steel reinforced to survive age, potholes, high speeds, quick stops, heat, cold, low shoulders and hard curbs.

But technology has kept apace. New machines will slice through steel belts like liverwurst, turning rubber into the consistency of crumbs, sand or baby powder.

For years, California and a growing list of other states have been experimenting with crumb rubber for road paving and patching, and advocates of the practice maintain that rubber asphalt mixes will outlast conventional asphalt and perhaps provide better traction. Paving a mile with a rubber asphalt mix can use the equivalent of 16,000 junk tires.

Appealing as it sounds, the recycling of old tires into new roads has been a long time coming because the mix is more expensive than ordinary asphalt, because patent issues are involved, and because the Federal Highway Administration is still at work on standards that specify ratios and performance requirements.

The story is similar across the recycling front.

Retreading has been thrown into steady decline with the arrival of inexpensive new tires from the Far East, making new tires less expensive than retreads. Although shops across the country have the capacity to put new treads on as many as 25 million tires a year, only an estimated 12.5 million passenger-car tires were retreaded last year. In the mid '80s, 12% of the more than 200 million auto tires were being retreaded. By last year, the number had declined to 7.5%.

In spite of the technology to retread or reincarnate bald and near-bald casings into anything from dish drains to carbon black, it is more profitable to ship worn tires to Third World countries for continued service than it is to recycle them.

But the feeble waste-tire market has never discouraged eccentrics and dreamers, who have accumulated mountains of them with an eye to the day when sky-high energy prices would make them rich.

One such collector may have altered the course of the waste-tire crisis.

Over a period of 20 years, Ed Filben collected the biggest pile of junk tires in the history of the world, 30 million to 40 million of them filling a whole valley in the hills outside of Modesto.

On a slope above the stupefying dump, Oxford Energy Inc., a New York-based company, is burning tires from Filben's collection in a $41-million high-tech plant. The Oxford plant, which obtained the tires in a lease arrangement with Filben, generates 14 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to supply the needs of 15,000 homes. The electricity is sold to PG&E;, the local utility.

With its 2,000-degree incinerator going 24 hours a day and consuming 4 million tires a year, the pile could disappear by about the turn of the century. But meanwhile, the company is collecting more tires--those of more recent vintage produce more energy--and expects to continue burning after the massive Filben collection is gone.

Environmental groups, long alarmed over the presence of the outrageous dump, have opposed the import of any more tires, but the plant has complied with state air quality requirements and received environmental citations from the state and the U.S. Department of Energy. Moving into the black after losing money for half of its first two years, it is being shown off to visitors from other towns where the Oxford company wants to start up new operations.

"When we started, we were thinking in terms of 20 or 40 plants around the country," said Oxford Vice President Robert Graulich, "but we have decided that is neither possible nor desirable."

The success at Modesto has not made expansion easy. If abandoned tires epitomize decay, the notion of tire burning conjures the smell of rubber and the image of oily black smoke.

When Oxford proposed to collect millions of tires from across New England and burn them in a tire-to-electricity plant at Stirling, Conn., it created an uproar across the nearby border in Rhode Island. Concerned that the operation would foul the state's largest water reservoir, the Rhode Island Legislature adopted a bill to block tires from being shipped out of the state to an incinerating facility within 200 miles of its state line.

But after four years, construction is beginning. Oxford is collecting and chipping tires from across New England. According to Graulich, it expects to be collecting them at a rate of 11 million a year by the time it goes into operation.

Meanwhile, Oxford has set its sights on Lackawanna, N. Y., an old Lake Erie steel town, for a third plant, provoking a debate that stands to become a metaphor for the national waste-disposal crisis and the struggle against tire piles.

Lackawanna is financially strapped, devastated by the shutdown of the venerable Bethlehem Steel Co. plant. A monumental cleanup task remains at the abandoned site, while Bethlehem's only remaining operation, a coke oven, continues to regularly belch pollution, bringing it fines from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

It is the epitome of a Rust Belt town trying to make a transition to a new economy. It desperately needs new revenue.

Oxford Energy's proposal to locate a tire-fed electric power plant twice the size of the Modesto facility produced a sharp split in the town, although the operation would pay it $980,000 to start up and about $550,000 per year in lieu of taxes.

The problem is that Lackawanna is in an area of the state that has excess landfill, two hazardous waste facilities and a nuclear waste dump. Before Oxford approached with its proposal for a tire-burning plant, the giant waste disposal firm Browning-Ferris Industries made Lackawanna its choice as a location for a huge medical waste processing operation.

"The aura of waste has overpowered rational discussion," said Spagnoli, the state environmental official whose region includes Lackawanna. "There is a garbage phobia because there isn't a hazardous waste made that we don't handle in western New York."

At Oxford, Graulich professes not to be surprised that "we got swept up in all the unfounded fears. We knew that what we were doing was unusual and that we would always have to go through a protracted public education process."

Other communities have already been presented with the issues now facing Lackawanna.

When a Utah-based company proposed to build a plant to generate electricity from shredded tires at Rialto near San Bernardino, a complex legal battle ensued, involving several counties and municipalities and pitting the South Coast Air Quality Management District against its own appeals board. The fight has gone on for more than five years with two trials and two trips to an appeal court, and the opposition thus far prevailing.

Another company, Resource Technology Inc., has hopes of turning old tires into profit at a prototype tire-burning plant at Claxton, Ga. Rather than generating electricity, the plan in Florida is to make a profit by recovering oil, zinc and carbon black, among other byproducts. The firm plans to apply for a permit for a full-scale facility in Polk County, Fla., where there is a tire pile estimated at 10 million, one of a half-dozen in the state with 5 million casings or more.

In Congress, in the tire business, and among environmental groups there remain doubts that incineration or current recycling is the answer to the tire problem.

There is a notion that there is something to be learned from the junk dealers who have created the eyesores and fire hazards with their massive collections.

Shredded tires, it is suggested, might be put into lined landfills, and covered with another liner beneath a layer of dirt. Immune to decomposition, they would remain an energy bank against the day when oil prices might make it commercially attractive to recover them.

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