Rhode Islanders Tire of Tire Piles

Fourteen-acre site is hub of environmental controversy over how to dispose of scrap wheels

The well-worn house is perched on a small hill just off Tarkiln Road here in Smithfield, R.I. Several old cars, and rusting pieces of machinery are scattered under the winter trees sheathed in ice here on a freezing day.

Signs nailed on trees and fences around the house carry a clear message of warning: Stay off this land or else.

From inside the house, a wary William Davis and his family have waged a 25-year legal battle to protect what is behind the house: an estimated 20 to 30 million scrap tires on rural land covering some 14 acres.

"Davis owns the largest scrap-tire dump in the Northeast and probably east of the Mississippi," says Matt DeStefano, project manager for Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

A knock on Mr. Davis's door by this reporter brings a quick response from his son-in-law: "Get off our property."

Old and crumbling, the tires are clumped in huge piles that breed mosquitoes in summer, collect water that freezes in winter, and add up to a 14-acre environmental "nightmare" according to many officials. Davis may have thought he could turn them into gold, or at least some money. "It's difficult to determine exactly how many tires are there," Mr. DeStefano says, after many visits to Davis's land, "because so many are piled in ravines, and you can't see the bottom." In places the piles are more than 25 feet high.

Whatever the number, the massive site is emblematic of a continuing nationwide problem: How does a vehicle-loving nation dispose of the nearly 270 million scrap tires it generates each year?

According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) - and despite reductions in many states - there are an estimated 800 million scrap tires in piles around the United States. (See story, below.)

Officially, the Smithfield location is known as the Davis Landfill. To the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), part of it is also known as the Davis Liquid Waste Site, now a Superfund site where hundreds of drums of solvents, acids, pesticides, phenols, metals, and laboratory pharmaceuticals were dumped throughout the 1970s.

Davis was paid to accept the waste and the tires beginning then, perhaps thinking that oil shortages at the time could lead to a hot market for scrap tires. A process known as pyrolysis can change part of a tire into oil. Hundreds of trucks rolled through Smithfield with tires that Davis accepted year after year for payment.

"As with all of the tire-pile operators," says Steve Morin, assistant to the director of Rhode Island's DEM, "they thought this was a great way to make money. And a man of Davis's age remembers World War II, when used tires were a commodity. They think they are sitting on a gold mine."

Davis also accepted junked cars and old machine parts. In addition to drums of chemical waste, he allowed tank trucks to dump wastes directly into lagoons and seepage pits, which contaminated the soil and groundwater in the area. In some instances he covered the waste with tires.

All of this happened in years when environmental concerns were being argued in the US and slowly focused into legislation and new laws. Piling tires used to be a legitimate way to dispose of them.

The Davis site is several miles outside of Smithfield, a middle-class town of 19,000. Roads to the property pass through residential areas, and according to the EPA, 240 people live within one mile of the site. Neighbors complaining about water quality and noisy trucks started Davis's many legal battles in the '70s. He has fought against nearly every court decree and lawsuit, and even won a few in the early years.

But according to the Rhode Island Attorney General's office, he has defiantly torn up subpoenas, blocked entrance to his property, carried and fired guns to scare officials, allegedly tampered with government cleanup equipment on his land, shouted at women officials, and defied restraining orders.

Davis's lawyer, Thomas Plunkett in Providence, will not comment on pending cases, and the Davis family refused requests to interview Davis by phone or in person. "I think basically Davis thinks he hasn't done anything wrong, and that there weren't guidelines to follow in those early days" says DeStefano. "His family and land are very important to him." Davis has said before that it is the government's responsibility to remove the tires.

Currently, he is under a court-ordered mandate to remove the tires on a specified schedule while the EPA continues to repair and restore the contaminated chemical-waste portion of the site.

Adhering to the "polluter pays" principle of EPA at Superfund sites, United Technologies Corp., of Hartford, Conn., and 53 other companies - all responsible for sending waste material to Davis over the years - agreed to pay $32 million to clean up that part of the site that is chemically polluted. Some state officials say that Davis provided the EPA with the names of companies that brought waste chemicals to the site.

The scrap tires are another story. Davis now has a lien on his property to pay for the removal, but state officials say he has transferred ownership of much of his property to relatives out of state.

"Either Davis removes the tires now or we do," says Terence Tierney, assistant attorney general for Rhode Island. In 1992 the state also passed the Tire Storage Act, preventing any site from taking more scrap tires. In response to the court order, Davis began sending the tires three years ago to a plant in Connecticut that burned tires to create electricity, one of the prevailing methods in many states to dispose of scrap tires along with providing fuel for wood-pulp mills and cement production.

"He got rid of about 800,000 tires," says Mr. Tierney.

But eventually the plant stopped accepting the free tires because most came with too much dirt and debris clogging the processing equipment. And the tires were too flat, crushed by years of weight on them. Scrap tires in better condition became readily available in the shifting marketplace as economic conditions changed.

"So the state moved in, established fire lanes through the piles that Davis had failed to do, and contracted with a company that was using chipped up tires for a drainage layer for a landfill in New Hampshire," says Tierney. Paid for out of a fund established by the state legislature, nearly a million tires were removed last year at a cost of $1 million.

"One of our concerns has always been the possibility of a tire fire," says Smithfield Fire Chief Kenneth Venables. "We get a lot of lightning in the area, and with the fire lanes now the hazard has been diminished considerably."

Tire fires are hard to extinguish, requiring great amounts of dirt for smothering. In l983, 7 million tires caught on fire in Winchester, Va., and burned for nearly nine months. More recently, a tire fire in Ontario, Canada, burned for 17 days.

Residents near the Davis site now have a new municipal water line to serve their needs. Soon the EPA will conclude cleanup of the site's contaminated portion. At one point, Davis was ordered to create a 50-foot-wide perimeter road around the 14 acres, but has yet to comply in a serious way. "It may be that we'll have to settle for just making the place fire safe for while," says a state official. "But eventually, one way or another, we'll get the tires out of there."

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