Can these tires provide cheap fuel for your car?

Even with tread worn, sidewalls crimped and leaks aplenty, scrap tires remain a formidable presence – enough to wheel in a big controversy.

We run through 300 million a year in this country, more than 7 million in Ohio.

Discarded tires catch water, becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes. They can hang around in unsightly piles for years. And their carcasses harbor enough combustible material, along with a stew of chemicals, to burn with nasty smoke and fierce heat.

That makes them dangerous trash to some, useful and cheap fuel to others. An industry has grown up around supplying and burning what insiders call TDF, or tire-derived fuel.

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That’s where the controversy comes in. About 45 percent of scrap tires recycled in the United States end up as fuel, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the agency might have to issue rules that could cut that proportion dramatically. Such a prospect threatens the tire-processing industry.

A federal lawsuit filed by prominent environmental groups challenged rules the EPA created allowing certain facilities to burn tires without restraining hazardous emissions that billow from stacks.

The groups – including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Environmental Integrity Project and Louisiana Environmental Action Network – prevailed in June. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in their favor.

The court noted that the EPA itself “defined the serious adverse implications for public health and the environment resulting from the pollution emitted by” burning tires and ordered the dispute back to court.

There, another judge must decide whether the relaxed rules that the EPA has applied to TDF facilities – mostly at cement kilns, paper mills and some utilities, including Akron Thermal L.P., which burns tires to provide steam heat to 17 million square feet of building space in downtown Akron – should give way to the same harsher pollution rules that apply to incinerators.

If that happens, plants might have to spend millions on emission-control and monitoring technology to keep burning tires. The economic incentive for such fuel would be gone or at least diminished. And that, the Rubber Manufacturers Association and others said, could all but halt the process of turning a nationwide blight into fuel.

The coalition of environmental groups said it also will protect the public from toxic air pollution that the Clean Air Act sought to outlaw.

In some sense, the conflict pits two sides of America’s environmental sensibility against one another.

The rubber industry and scrap-tire processors want to harvest the energy in old tires and reduce landfill waste – as well as make money. The environmental groups want to keep more cancer- and lung disease-causing chemicals, soot and particulate pollution out of the air.

“Our position is that scrap tires should be treated as fuel,” said Dan Zielinski, spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. The trade group represents companies as diverse as scrap tire processors and Akron tire giant Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. If the EPA is forced to define tires as waste, he said, “you’ll see processors go out of business.”

Keith Price, a spokesman for Goodyear, pointed out that the company is not in the business of recycling dead tires, but its position is the same as the manufacturers association’s: The EPA should be permitted to continue excusing air pollution from facilities that burn TDF.

Most environmentalists express concern at the mountains of old tires, like those in Ohio’s Wyandot County. The Kirby Tire Recycling Facility Inc., site of Ohio’s worst tire fire, once was piled high with 25 million scrap tires. After the fire in 1999, the state EPA moved in to clean up the site.

Environmental activists like John Walke, clean-air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, hate piles of solid waste, too. But the activists’ interest in this dispute is air quality.

“The Clean Air Act governs toxic air pollution, including carcinogens,” he said. “The EPA regulated incinerators under one rule and so-called industrial boilers under another, less-rigorous rule.”

Now that the appellate court has sent the lawsuit back to a lower court, Walke feels the EPA should treat pollution sources, whether boilers or incinerators, the same. Any other consequence will mean “more carcinogens raining down,” he said.

Benzene is a major one, a chemical that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers both toxic and cancer-causing.

Short-term exposure can result in dizziness, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, convulsions and even death. Over the long term it can cause anemia, bleeding and leukemia.

Walke said other airborne chemicals from burning tires include hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and various metals that cause cancer and other diseases, among them arsenic, lead and manganese.

“We obviously believe the American people will be safer if the EPA regulates the toxic and carcinogenic air pollution from all waste, including the waste from tire-derived fuel,” Walke said.

A spokesman for the Ohio EPA’s division of recycling and litter prevention said the state has a special commitment to recycling tires that new, tougher federal rules could upset.

“We are hoping that those who are burning tires presently will be grandfathered in” without further clean-air requirements, said Chet Chaney, community and market development manager at the division. New facilities seeking to use tires as fuel ideally would be subject to additional regulations, he said.

“The potential is there, definitely,” Chaney said, “for devastation of the tire-processing industry” in Ohio. He said the state environmental protection agency hopes the conflict results in “reasonable regulation that takes the industry as well as the public into account.”

But the Ohio EPA was more circumspect. “It is uncertain at this time whether the court’s decision affects tire-derived fuel,” said Margot Perez-Sullivan, an agency spokeswoman. She added, “There is not yet a final decision.”

One might not emerge for at least a year. “And then it could take a year or more before the U.S. EPA develops new regulations,” Walke said.

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