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Too Many Tires: Dumps Present Problems and Opportunities

November 12, 1988

CHARLOTTE, N.Y. (AP) _ A black ocean unfolds amid the rolling hills and corn fields in this upstate New York community, producing a sight that makes passing motorists do a double-take.

This ocean isn’t made of water, but tires - about 2 million old automobile tires heaped in a pile that drowns more than 30 acres of farmland.

More than an eyesore, the tire dump is a foreboding environmental problem for the tiny Town of Charlotte about 70 miles south of Buffalo and for countless other communities struggling to deal with the nation’s estimated 2 billion discarded tires.

For David Hornburg and his sons, though, the dump is an untapped resource.

The Hornburgs began stockpiling tires about 10 years ago, figuring that with oil prices increasing rapidly, the old tires, each of which are made with 2 1/2 gallons of petroleum, would become a valuable commodity when the technology was found to extract the oil.

″I know there will be a need for these someday,″ said Dan Hornburg.

But, as the dump has grown, so have the number of complaints from their neighbors.

″Many people have been fighting them so long that they’ve given up hope the tires will ever be gone,″ said W. Earl Minckler, mayor of the nearby village of Sinclairville. ″We really can’t do any more.″

After numerous court battles, the Hornburgs have been forced by state officials to stop taking any more tires.

Residents found little comfort in the ruling. They still fear an uncontrollable fire at the dump and are pestered by the droves of insects that breed in the tires.

In 1983, a tire dump fire in Frederick County, Va., burned for months. Similar blazes in New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington have burned for weeks.

There’s hope, however, that the tire dump problem might be controlled in the future.

A California plant is burning tires and using the heat produced to generate electricity. The plant, called the Modesto Energy Project, is a subsidiary of the Oxford Energy Co. The facility, located about 100 miles east of San Francisco in Westley, Calif., has been in operation for more than a year.

The process of burning tires is simple and produces more heat energy than coal, according to Robert Graulich, Oxford vice president, who added the energy burns cleaner than coal as well.

Tires are stockpiled at the plant and put into boilers where they are ″cooked″ at high temperatures. The energy generated from the burning tires is used to heat water in pipes, which then turns into the steam that runs a generator.

Last year, the project burned over 4 million tires and produced enough energy for 15,000 homes.

″One tire can produce enough energy for the average house for one day,″ Graulich said. The California plant has been so successful that the U.S. Department of Energy recognized it as one of the five most innovative energy projects in the country.

In addition to the California plant, which is now turning a small profit, Oxford plans to open a plant in Sterling, Conn., in 1990 that will have the capacity to burn 9 million tires per year, according to Graulich.

However, even with two such plants operating at peak capacity, only 15 million tires would be burned each year. What’s to be done with the other estimated 225 million tires that are discarded every year?

At present, little. The retread industry, which has fallen on hard times recently because of the lower prices for new tires, does its share.

There are also some companies that grind tires down for use as rubber mats, shoe soles and other products, but they use just one percent of all unwanted tires.

Another idea for limiting the number of discarded tires is called pyrolysis, a method where a tire is actually melted and the oil is extracted. The cost for a full-sized plant to extract the oil is staggering, however.

So, what’s to stop more dumps from scarring the landscape?

Legislation, for one thing. New York has taken steps - in part because of the Hornburgs - to make sure no more dumps crop up. The new law, which goes into effect Dec. 31, gives guidelines regarding the storing of old tires.

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, owners must now obtain permits to keep 1,000 or more tires on any one site. They also must spray the tires for vermin, keep the dumps fire controlled by separating them into piles and keep each pile under 20 feet in height.

But even with the law, there will still be dumps like the one operated by the Hornburgs, who remain convinced of the potential value of the old tires.

Ironically, the government the Hornburgs have battled for 10 years so they could keep the tires is the same one they now lament as being behind the times in using tires for energy.

Dan Hornburg said he thinks the local government or state should buy their tires and burn them in a similar manner as the Modesto Energy Project.

But until the time someone takes the tires - which even Hornburg admits won’t be anytime soon - the huge dumps will remain in place.

End Adv Weekend Editions Nov. 12-13

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