Burnin' Rubber!

Tires: A Burning Question in Buda

Last Wednesday, despite the protests of environmentalists, a Buda cement plant began burning shredded tires to produce energy. Currently using about a ton of tires per hour, the Texas Lehigh plant, located 20 miles south of Austin, may eventually use three times that amount.

Opponents of the tire burning complain that the plant got a permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) without ever holding a public hearing. But what really worries them is their belief that the Buda plant may emit a host of dangerous toxic gases, even though Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and TNRCC studies indicate that cement plants which use tires emit fewer pollutants than coal-burning plants.

Regardless of who's right, Texas Lehigh is up and running. The cement kiln marks the first plant in Central Texas to use tires as a fuel source. (A plant in Midlothian has been burning tires for several months). But other such plants will likely follow suit for a simple reason: Texas has millions of surplus tires, and cement makers can save a lot of money by adding them to their fuel mixture. A new state law pays cement producers 40 cents for each tire burned, and the TNRCC has millions of dollars in grant money set aside for facilities that want to use tires as a fuel source.

Jerry Borcherding, the environmental manager at Texas Lehigh, predicts that tires may eventually provide 10% of the plant's fuel needs. If testing procedures work out as expected, Borcherding says, the plant will burn up to 1.4 million tires per year. But even if all 12 of Texas' cement kilns burned as many tires as the Buda plant, the state would still have a surfeit of tires.

Every day, Texans toss out the equivalent of 82,192 passenger car tires. If you stacked them side to side, they'd form a line nearly eight miles long. And while consumers pay a $2 fee for disposal on every new tire they buy, Texas simply can't get rid of its old tires fast enough. Over the past three years, the TNRCC has spent nearly $100 million on a program that turns piles of whole tires into piles of shredded tires. When the program began, millions of tires were in illegal dumps and millions more were dumped in landfills. Most of the illegal dumps have now been cleaned up. But the program has been rocked by allegations of fraud, and three former managers of a tire shredding facility in Cleveland, Texas have been convicted in federal court of conspiring to defraud the State of Texas by falsifying tire-shredding records.

Despite the program's good intentions, used tires continue to pile up. According to the TNRCC, six of every 10 tires now being discarded in Texas are not being recycled. Instead, they are being shredded and stockpiled. Bud Gibson, the owner of Gibson Recycling in Atlanta, Texas, estimates that he has 18 million shredded tires stored on his property, waiting for a home. Utility companies and cement kilns want to burn them because tires contain more energy by weight than high grade coal. And because tires contain no sulphur, tire industry officials claim they can be burned with little damage to the environment. According to the TNRCC, 22 states currently allow businesses ranging from paper mills to power plants to use what is known as tire-derived fuel, or TDF. Incineration has a number of advantages: it gets rid of a lot of tires quickly and there is a ready market for TDF. Texas companies are currently sending shreds as far away as Illinois and Ohio for incineration.

Buda's Inferno

Borcherding of Texas Lehigh says burning tires is "true recycling." By using tires as an alternative energy source, Borcherding explains, "We are not disposing of a waste. We are using a material that would be stored or landfilled, and recovering the heat value in the tires."

One of the primary expenses for cement kilns is fuel, and Texas Lehigh's sprawling Buda plant, which can burn coal or natural gas, may consume more than 130,000 tons of coal annually. Thus, burning tires can save the company lots of money. And Borcherding insists it is safe. The tires are burned in the kiln, which reaches temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. He says the high heat consumes the tires completely and prevents the formation of harmful gases.

However, many tire industry officials don't like seeing tires go up in smoke. Kay Knapp, executive director of the Texas Tire Dealers Association, would rather see old tires recycled into new products. "The tire industry looks at tire-derived fuel as destroying the tires," she says, "even though it serves a purpose and it takes a big volume of tires." Knapp says there are more than a half dozen Texas companies now gearing up production to make consumer products out of cast-off tires.

Opponents of the Texas Lehigh project point out that the TNRCC should have allowed them to speak on the plant's permit, which was granted without a hearing on November 1. "Until we know who is right about whether or not the emissions are harmful, these people should be given the courtesy of notification to allow them to protect themselves from exposure," says Sue Pitman of Wimberley SAFE (Secure a Future Environment). Pitman says the TNRCC is "using Texans for guinea pigs" by allowing the cement plant to burn tires.

In a January 11 letter to Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, TNRCC executive director Dan Pearson defended tire burning at the Buda plant, calling it a "practical and very safe practice." Pearson said that the TNRCC had done extensive testing at the Holnam cement plant in Midlothian and that tests "clearly showed the safety of TDF use."

But Neil Carman, an air quality specialist with the Lone Star Sierra Club, says Austinites should be concerned about the plant because, "Of a dozen cement plants in the state, it has the worst record." Carman points to a long list of violations that occurred in the late 1980s at the plant regarding excessive dust and other problems. He says that tire burning can cause the release of dioxin, furans, and a variety of heavy metals. He points to a 1991 report by the EPA which concluded that tire burning can cause increased emissions of carbon monoxide and some polyaromatic hydrocarbons. The same report also said that tires caused decreased emissions of sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide.

The TNRCC appears to be firmly behind the plant. In his letter to Barrientos, Pearson said that dust problems at the plant have been fixed, and it "has only had one minor violation of any kind over the past three years."

Opponents of the tire burning may get a public hearing in April, after Texas Lehigh completes a test on the emissions coming from its smoke stack. But at this point, it appears that unless citizens take the TNRCC to court, they will not be able to stop the tire burning.

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