The Tire Mound of Mystery
Thousands of city tires lie moldering southeast of town – and the city is claiming ignorance
Stacked in long rows and towering piles in the middle of a field southeast of Downtown are thousands of tires – perhaps as many as 6,000, estimates Victor Almaguer, who leases this land just off Highway 183 South as part of the small business, Vic's Tire Service, he runs with his family. The piles and rows have been growing here for years, sprouting from the rough earth now seared brown by the summer's heat and drought. Almaguer would like nothing more than to dispose of the tire mound that has been rising on this property for more than five years. But he doesn't have the money to do so, and he doesn't know that he'll be able on his own to obtain the funds needed for their legal disposal, which he estimates could cost as much as $50,000. It's a thorny environmental problem for sure – scrap tires provide an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes, are a magnet for potential disease, and if not disposed of properly, present a host of other dangers.
But it isn't a problem entirely of Almaguer's making.
Indeed, these tires aren't Almaguer's, dumped and abandoned here in the course of his daily business. Instead, the tires on this piece of land belong to the city of Austin. They are scrap tires pulled from every type of vehicle managed by the city's Fleet Services Division – including police cruisers, ambulances, garbage trucks, and fire trucks. How it came to pass that this mound of rubber ended up on Almaguer's property isn't entirely clear, but by looking at the work order numbers chalked onto the sides of the tires, it is evident that city-owned tires have been piling up here since at least 2003. The newest ones arrived as recently as this spring.
According to state law, this is not how scrap tires are supposed to be managed. In fact, the state has a fairly strict regulation and reporting scheme governing proper tire disposal – including a tracking manifest process that follows old tires from the time they're pulled from a vehicle to their ultimate disposal, a system not unlike the strict chain-of-custody documentation required for evidence in a criminal prosecution. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is tasked with overseeing scrap tire disposal and responding to complaints about entities that aren't disposing of tires properly. Under this regulation scheme, there are "generators," entities such as the city of Austin's Fleet Services that are putting tires into the system; there are "transporters," those individuals or companies who must be registered with TCEQ to move and manage large numbers of tires (anyone storing or moving more than 500 tires must be registered); and there are "processors" and disposal facilities, which also must be registered with the state. Additionally, the final disposition of all scrap tires – whether used for fuel, land reclamation, or road fill, for example – must also be for a purpose approved by the commission.
Almaguer readily acknowledges that he is not registered by TCEQ as a transporter – or, for that matter, as either a processor or disposal facility – yet he says that for years he's been accepting scrap tires from the city's automotive service centers at the request of Fleet's Tire Program Manager Bill Janousek. For several of those six years, Almaguer said, he had been paid for hauling off the dead tires under the contract the city has with Tire Centers Inc. of Austin, which contracts with the city to provide new and recapped tires as well as to handle the city's scrap tires. But since 2007, Almaguer says, he has not been paid for any of the tires he hauled from the city's scrap bin. And now, he said, he can't get anyone from the city to talk to him about how to handle the surplus scrap he's accumulated. "Nobody has talked to me," he said recently. "They've brushed me off."
In an effort to find out how it came to be that Almaguer ended up holding thousands of old city tires, the Chronicle made a series of open records requests for Fleet Services documents – including requests for three years of the manifest records that TCEQ requires the city to maintain. The records provided pursuant to those requests raise more questions than they answer. To begin with, it's unclear whether city officials have any idea where the tires have been going, and therefore whether they have been complying with any of the state laws that govern the environmentally acceptable disposal of all that rubber and other components. Given his experience with the city's Fleet Services Division, Almaguer thinks it is unlikely that the city can answer those questions: "They really don't have a way to say which [tires] they've gotten rid of because they don't write it down," he said. "So they don't know which they've paid for [to be disposed of properly] and which they didn't – or if they've paid for any."
We initially asked city officials for an explanation of the scrap tire procedures in mid-November, and they responded in essence: We don't want to talk about it. When we pressed them with additional accumulated detail, the official response became: This is the first we've heard of it, and we'll get back to you. This week, the city said the subject is "part of an ongoing investigation," and there will be no further comment while the investigation is "pending."
Cradle to Grave
Nevertheless, it appears that since 2003, the city of Austin has been violating state environmental regulations regarding the proper disposal of scrap tires. Given the sheer number of city tires languishing on Almaguer's property, that seems undeniable. State law concerning the disposal of tires is strict and straightforward: Anyone disposing of large numbers of tires must follow a manifesting process that tracks tires from removal through disposal. "There is no exception to manifesting, cradle to grave," says Cynthia Hackathorn, TCEQ's scrap tire management registration coordinator. "The rules are very specific."
There are very good reasons for those rules. Abandoned tires attract rodents and snakes and provide an excellent breeding environment for mosquitoes, all of which pose very serious health and safety issues. (Almaguer says he recently restacked the entire field because it had become a mosquito-breeding wonderland and attracted a number of snakes.) Abandoned tires also have a nasty habit of catching fire – and when they do, the fire can be very difficult to extinguish. A 3-acre dump in southeast Houston caught fire in 2002, sending flames 300 feet into the air; it took nearly four days to quell the blaze. Last spring, a tire fire in the East Texas town of Hawkins caused officials to evacuate the entire town. Famously, a 1983 fire involving 7 million tires in Virginia burned for nearly nine months before it was extinguished. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that blaze sent up a plume of smoke 3,000 feet high and 50 miles long and polluted the air in four states. The site was not removed from the EPA's Superfund list until 2005.
While the EPA does not consider intact scrap tires a hazardous waste, when the tires catch fire, they break down into toxic component products – gases, heavy metals, and oil – that can be very dangerous. Indeed, according to a 1997 study prepared for the EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, in lab testing, open tire fire emissions were shown to produce 13,000 times more mutagenic compounds than produced in coal-fired utility emissions. And although scrap tires can be difficult to ignite, they can do so randomly – tires retain heat, and when stored in stockpiles they have the potential to ignite spontaneously from the stored energy, creating fires difficult to extinguish. With the record-breaking heat of this summer, it's quite lucky that the tires Almaguer has been storing didn't do just that.
So there is a strict process in place to help the state keep tabs on the roughly 24 million scrap tires generated in Texas each year, although the process of creating and maintaining the required manifest system is fairly simple. The manifest is a five-part form, originating from the tire generator – in this case, the city of Austin's Fleet Services. The generator is required to fill out the first part of the form, including the date and time the tires are picked up and a count of the number of passenger and truck tires being removed. The generator's representative must then certify the information on the form. The transporter picking up the tires must supply a TCEQ registration number and sign and certify that the tires described have been removed. A copy of the form with the signatures of both the generator and transporter is to be left with the generator. From there the form moves, along with the tires, first to the processor and then on to the final disposal site. When the fourth section of the form has been signed and certified at the place of final disposal, a copy of the complete form, with four signatures, is required to be sent back to the generator that started the whole process, where it must be kept on file for three years. Under TCEQ rules, the completed manifest must be returned to the generator within 60 days after the scrap tires were picked up.
Importantly, it is also the generator's responsibility to report any lapse in reporting – including manifests that are missing, haven't been properly completed, or have been altered – within 90 days of the date that the tires were originally picked up. In other words, within 90 days, a tire generator – such as the city of Austin – should be able to account for the whereabouts of each and every tire it has relegated to the scrap heap.
In the case of the city of Austin's Fleet Services – based on records available – it appears that this particular generator of scrap tires is neither maintaining nor monitoring those legally required records.
In fact, it appears that the city's Fleet Services Division has not been maintaining manifest records with any consistency for at least three years. In response to requests for documents dating from 2006, the city provided a raft of documents, but not a single fully completed city-generated tire manifest form – and for 2006, Fleet officials failed to provide any city-generated manifest forms at all. Instead, they provided two "service ticket" forms that appear to have been generated by Tire Centers Inc., which is actually the city's contracted transporter; these purport to show that a total of 257 "little tires" (that is, from passenger cars) and 86 "big tires" (taken from larger vehicles, such as solid waste or fire trucks) were scrapped by Austin in 2006. They also provided 18 TCI manifest forms, showing 1,074 truck tires and 330 passenger tires disposed of in 2006. But according to TCI manager Mark Hill, the TCI manifests the city provided to us are not only for tires the city has scrapped but include tires disposed of by TCI for any number of clients. "The tires on the manifests are all of the tires that we have disposed of," Hill wrote in an e-mail. "They include the City and any other customers here at our Austin location. Basically all the tires are scrapped together. We are unable to separate the tires based on customer."
Not only do the numbers on the manifests not match those on the service tickets provided by the city for 2006, the total number of tires supposedly disposed of by the city is a far cry from the roughly 10,000 tires that city of Austin mechanics placed on city vehicles that year. (In addition to new tires, the city uses recapped, or retread, tires when it can, but the number of recaps used each year is only between roughly 30% and 40% of the total number of tires used, sources tell us. For 2006, the city used roughly 3,000 recapped tires – so even if all those TCI manifests represented city tires, there would still be more than 5,500 scrapped tires for which the city has no records tracking their final disposition.)
The paperwork gets even more complicated in 2007 and 2008. For 2007, the city provided 28 service tickets but only one city-generated manifest form. And that form has only the first two portions signed, by the generator – certified by Tire Program Manager Bill Janousek – and by the transporter, interestingly, certified by a relative of Almaguer's who signed off with the TCEQ registration number assigned to TCI. (Almaguer has said his brother filled in for him while he was sick in 2007, but it is unclear why his brother would have signed off with TCI's registration number. According to the city's purchasing office, the city has not authorized any subcontracting work under the TCI contract. TCI's Hill said that Vic's Tire Service would pick up scrap tires for TCI from time to time, an arrangement he says the city was aware of.)
Again, there are no completed forms generated by the city following what the service tickets reflect would have been 6,241 tires scrapped in 2007. The city provided only a stack of manifests generated by TCI and not by the city, as required by state law. Those manifests, which Fleet officials have said are their "final disposal manifests," record a total of 6,264 scrapped tires. As before, TCI says its manifests include all tires scrapped by TCI and not just city tires. And as before, the number of tires the city scrapped in 2007 does not match the number of tires replaced by the city in 2007, which, including recaps, totaled 12,400.
For 2008, the city did provide a stack of city-generated manifests – and not a single one is complete. The city provided another stack of TCI-generated manifests, and once again, there is no way to determine which of the tires recorded on those forms actually came from the city. For 2008, city-generated manifests record 8,894 tires scrapped, yet in total, the city replaced 14,500 tires that year.
Overall, the city failed to provide a single form recording the disposition of any scrap tire in the manner required by state law. And, interestingly, according to TCEQ, since 2006 the city has never once reported any break in the manifesting chain, which as a generator it is also required to do. Given the quality of the reporting documents provided by the city, it isn't so surprising to learn that thousands of tires have wound up sitting in a field.
It seems the city has no idea where its scrap tires go.
One presumes that someone at Fleet Services understands the process – and the seriousness of the city's failure to comply with state environmental regulations. The Chronicle requested an interview with Janousek, Deputy Fleet Officer Jennifer Walls, and Fleet Officer Gerry Calk. Originally, we were told that it would be "preferable" for us to speak with a single representative, division head Calk. Later, we were told by city spokesman Reyne Telles that no one from the city would be providing any comment on the city's scrap tire program, nor would anyone be able to answer any questions about the documents the city provided in response to our open records requests.
According to Telles, the city's legal department has deemed such a discussion a bad idea while an apparently unrelated whistle-blower lawsuit, filed by former Fleet Services official Hiram Kirkland, is pending in district court. Telles was unable to explain what relevance the Kirkland lawsuit has to the tire mound of mystery out on Highway 183 (except that both involve city "equipment"), but at least initially, that's what city legal was telling him. After additional inquiries, the official response has become that the matter is being investigated.
Whatever the eventual response might be, it's undeniable that trouble and noncompliance in the scrap tire program is not the only problem dogging the city's Fleet Services Division. The Kirkland lawsuit is definitely another.
According to his legal pleadings, former Fleet Operations Manager Kirkland alleges that he was fired for bringing to the city's attention numerous examples of "massive waste, fraud and malfeasance that had been ongoing for years," including "theft; fraud; falsification of documents; drug abuse on the job [by various employees]; alcohol abuse on the job; unauthorized sale of city property; worker's compensation fraud and abuse; and other wrongful activities." Among Kirkland's specific allegations are that certain contracts were rigged to favor certain vendors, that $250,000 in auto parts were tossed out into a Dumpster, and that employees working in at least one of the city's service centers were stealing auto parts and supplies (as well as selling city-owned car batteries and driving off with city-owned tires on personal vehicles) and manipulating inventory documents to try to hide the theft. (Only one of the scams Kirkland complained of – involving city employees removing inspection stickers from city vehicles and using them for their personal cars – actually ended with enforcement action. In that instance, Kirkland directed a colleague to report apparent fraud to the Texas Department of Public Safety. After the investigation, four employees were charged and pleaded guilty to tampering with a public record. Each received a nine-month probated sentence.)
When he reported the alleged violations to his supervisors – both inside Fleet and in the city's Human Resources Department – Kirkland alleges that instead of looking into the allegations and weeding out the bad actors within Fleet, the supervisors instead focused on him, using an anonymous complaint made five months earlier to the city's integrity office about possible unethical behavior on Kirkland's part as a means of eventually terminating him in the spring of 2009.
In its defense against the lawsuit, the city argued first that Kirkland didn't file his suit in time to take advantage of whistle-blower protections, and then more recently (during a summary judgment hearing earlier this month) has argued that he isn't eligible for whistle-blower protection because he didn't actually report any wrongdoing to an appropriate law enforcement authority (as is required by the statute). Finally, the city insists that there was no connection between Kirkland's dismissal and any alleged wrongdoing he says he might have thought was taking place.
On Tuesday, Judge Lora Livingston ruled in favor of the city's motion for summary judgment, without further explanation, and Kirkland and his attorneys are considering an appeal.
Kirkland's allegations are not the first concerning possible improprieties within Fleet Services. In 2006, the Office of the City Auditor closed an inquiry into an allegation that an "unnamed Fleet Services Tire Shop employee" was part of a "scam" involving Almaguer's business, Vic's Tire Service. At the time, Almaguer held a contract with the city to fix flats and other repairable tires removed from city vehicles.
The auditor's office was tasked with determining whether Vic's was marking as "non-repairable" all tires taken from city vehicles, regardless of whether they could in fact be repaired, and "subsequently fixing and selling any repairable tires, and remitting a portion of the proceeds as a kickback to the Tire Shop employee," according to a March 16, 2006, memo by then-acting Assistant City Auditor Susan Wynne. The auditor's office reviewed tire repair data and interviewed several Fleet employees before deciding that there was nothing to the allegation – at least as far as the auditors could tell. "None of the information we gathered indicated any unusual or improper pattern of tire repairs or replacement. Thus, we did not find any information that supported the allegation," Wynne wrote. "However, it is important to note that we met with some difficulty when attempting to review Fleet Services inventory records, which may have impacted our ability to fully detect such patterns, if they existed."
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In mid-November, we submitted a series of questions to city officials concerning Fleet Services' scrap tire procedures. After some delay, Telles responded that the questions "brought to light several issues which the senior management at Fleet Services had previously not been advised of. We ... intend to fully investigate the matter. Until we know all of the facts, it is not prudent for The City of Austin to prematurely comment."
After a few days, Telles issued yet another official statement: "The allegations are something we take seriously. After discussing the situation with the parties involved, it has been determined that the claims are part of an ongoing investigation. The investigation has not reached a point where we can share any sort of conclusion. As such, we cannot comment on the matter further while the investigation is pending."
It's Not Easy Being Green
There is no doubt that managing the city's fleet is a daunting task. The department employs 189 people, has a budget of just over $40 million, and is tasked with maintaining the more than 5,000 vehicles needed to do the city's work – including keeping cops on patrol, ambulances and fire trucks at the ready, garbage and recycling picked up on schedule, and roads maintained. The department is also trying to green up its operations, working to convert the fleet to alternative fuel vehicles with the goal of making its operations carbon neutral by 2020. That ambitious and admirable goal, however, makes the spectacle of the thousands of city-owned tires abandoned in a field just 13 miles from City Hall that much more confounding.
It is nearly impossible to stand in this field of scrapped tires without being overwhelmed by mosquitoes, which attack quickly and continuously on any exposed skin. Standing amid the mess, Almaguer says he isn't sure what to do now. He says he's disposed of as many of the tires on his own as he can – at times by cutting them down with a razor so they lie flat, to be packed inside wrecked cars that are flattened and hauled off – sometimes, he says, to be burned. Now, he simply can't afford to clean up the mess that the city has made. So far, he says, no one with the city has been willing to help.
While city management is pursuing its investigation, perhaps the TCEQ, or even the City Council, can lend a hand. Almaguer says the Austin Police Department contacted him this week and said somebody will be dropping by to have a look at the tires. He finds the city's claim of ignorance of the situation unbelievable, especially since he's been trying to get a response from Fleet management for months. "They know – they're playing possum," he said. "Maybe they're fixing to wake up."