State Tire Dumps Deemed Hazardous

Lawmaker: $1.50 Tire Fee Should Fund Massive Cleanup

Lawmakers are pushing for major changes to Colorado's tire abatement program, citing a recent Rubber Manufacturers Association report that named Colorado the state with the largest stockpile of tires in the country.

The report said Colorado has about 45 million tires stored, roughly one-third of the stockpiled tires in the country.

The report shows that while other states are reducing their stockpiles, the number of tires in Colorado is rising every year.

Most of the tires have been sitting for years in one of three state-sponsored tire dumps, called monofills. The largest monofill, Tire Mountain, is in Weld County. Despite the recent purchase of the monofill by Magnum d'Or, that has vowed to clean it up in three years' time, industry experts call it a catastrophe waiting to happen.

"Once tires are ignited, they are very difficult to put out," said Michael Blumenthal, vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association. "It is not an overstatement to say these are ticking time bombs."

Rep. Marsha Looper worries that lightning or arson could spark a massive tire fire, which would be a major blow to the surrounding community.

"When a facility like this catches on fire, you're going to have a tremendous amount of black smoke and that smoke is going to cause a great deal of air pollution and if the oil from these tires flows into any ground water, we're going to have groundwater contamination in addition to massive soil contamination," said Looper.

Tire Mountain has already gone up in flames once. Four acres of tires at the monofill smoldered for weeks after a lightning strike in June 1988. Twenty-five homes were evacuated. Firefighters wound up burying the fire in sand.

These days, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, which regulates the design of monofills, requires monofills to place tires in individual cells that can be up to 25 feet deep and would presumably stop a tire fire from spreading too far. The monofills also have fire lanes.

But Looper said health and safety issues at state monofills are only the tip of the tire abatement iceberg.

Looper wants to overhaul the entire program and said one of her goals is making sure that the $1.50 scrap tire fee that customers pay when they purchase a tire, goes entirely to mitigating scrap tires. Currently, the money from the scrap tire fee is funneling into the General Fund to combat a budget shortfall. The fee is not expected to fund tire abatement programs for at least the remainder of 2009 and 2010.

But Looper said even when the money was not being diverted into the General Fund, it was not being used to recycle the millions of tires that wind up at Colorado’s monofills.

The tire fee is disseminated, through a complex funding system, to three different agencies: the Department of Public Health and Environment, the Department of Local Affairs, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

A sizable portion of the funds clean up illegal tire stockpiles, fund tire recycling research, and reimburse schools and other public entities that use recycled tires on playgrounds.

But about 25 cents of every dollar funds programs that have nothing to do with scrap tires.

"There's a lot of the scrap tire money that does not go to any scrap tire projects whatsoever," said Blumenthal.

In fiscal year 2009, the $1.50 tire fee generated roughly $4 million in revenue. Of that, about $1 million went to programs that are unrelated to scrap tires.

The Department of Health’s Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Fund, which promotes recycling programs that often do not include scrap tires, received $762,282.

"You've got [scrap tire money] going into pop can and Dixie cup recycling," said Looper.

In calendar year 2008, an additional $314,000 went to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education’s Innovative Higher Education Research Fund.

"A sizable portion of the fee does go to tire abatement," insisted Joe Schieffelin, of the health department. But Schieffelin also conceded that there is a significant portion that does not. When asked if that is fair, he replied, "I think the legislature has determined that there are multiple interests at play here and they're trying to see that all of those interests get some of the money."

"Our view is that if you're going to put a fee onto tires, you should use that fee for scrap tire programs," said Blumenthal.

But only new legislation can change the distribution of the money. In the meantime, the health department is working on a 10-year plan to shut down Colorado’s monofills for good. Blumenthal said 10 years is far too long. He hopes the new owners of Tire Mountain will be able to implement a plan that will clean out the monofills in a fraction of the time.

He said the only way to make sure that the number of tires stockpiled in Colorado remains low, is to continue to create new markets for recycled tires, from tire derived fuel, to mulch, to playground surfacing.

"We think there needs to be a whole-scale change," said Blumenthal.