As tire fires go, it was a real dumpster fire.
At about 5:30 p.m. on July 22, about 30 miles northeast of Denver, near Hudson, an overworked shredder got too hot and the largest tire dump in North America went ablaze.
A dense black plume, like a Kuwaiti oil fire, soared east and plunged responding firefighters into an early dark.
Hudson’s monofill — hazardous waste nice-speak for “dump with one thing in it” — used to be called Tire Mountain, and is still called that outside official inspection reports. The mountain is now a symmetrical set of 64 rubber pits, each with a single jumbled layer on top and 15 feet of used tires down below.
Tire fires are a blinding flare marking where our environmental crimes are buried. Tire dumps offer an illusion we have taken care of the problem, until periodically something happens to remind us we’ve done nothing: a million burning tires belch smoke into Kansas; a bankrupt operator locks his gates and the refuse tires start backing up; a mosquito-borne epidemic launches a disease from our backyard scrap piles that we ordinarily have to travel to the tropics to acquire.
Just when we’ve agreed to do something about a forever problem like tires — such as reinstating a lapsed recycling fee last year — a more immediate problem shreds the effort. Colorado lawmakers confiscated the tire fund later in 2020, when the pandemic liquidated the state budget.
Go ahead. Just try putting out the fire.
Undoing the vulcanization that creates a tire is nearly impossible. Each tire is a sponge full of useful petroleum that resists becoming useful again until subjected to thousands of degrees of melting heat. When it’s done properly, the method is called “pyrolysis.” Deep inside a burning tomb for old tires, it’s called a 2,000-degree open furnace. The average tire is made with five gallons of petroleum. Tire Mountain holds more than 26 million tires.
Once fire takes hold, putting out flames on a tire can be just as difficult as taking a tire apart. The inferno vaporizes jets of water before they can smother anything. Some tires melt into oil that runs to the bottom of the pit and simmers in a subterranean lake of fire. Firefighting foam dribbles off the odd shapes and can’t reach inside the rims. Aerial bombardment can’t attack through the smoke plume.
In a former glass factory in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1997, teenagers set fire to 1.7 million abandoned tires stacked 50 feet high. Foam was useless. The local power company had shut off power to water hydrants after the building owners absconded. Firefighters brought in excavators to drag out burning tires and submerge them.
In water-filled dumpsters.
Now, 181 years after Mr. Goodyear accidentally dropped sulfur and rubber into a hot frying pan and invented vulcanization, we still haven’t figured out how to mitigate the product of his miracle.
Prepared, but still surprised by the ferocity
Platteville-Gilcrest Fire Protection District assistant chief Andy Wazny was prepared — on paper, at least — when he rolled under Tire Mountain’s dense plume that July evening. The district has entire plans on file just for that spot. He was supposed to be off shift, but stopped by after sending every piece of equipment the department could spare. The heat was already so intense he had to roll up his windows.
“Every new guy in the department gets out there and learns what the hazards are,” Wazny said.
Besides Tire Mountain, Platteville-Gilcrest has two other major hazards on the books that it trains for constantly: An egg farm taking up an entire square mile, with more than 17,000 laying hens in each barn, and a former nuclear power plant now burning natural gas.
Hudson’s Tire Mountain suffered a fire under previous owners that ran for two weeks in 1987. More recently, fire marshals had demanded wide dirt berms between the storage cells to prevent exactly what happened in July — a few overheated scraps exporting flames to millions of tires. Rumors were rampant that the 1987 fire never really went out, but smoldered along beneath the cells, predating “The Simpsons” Springfield Tire Fire by three years.
“I do believe there are pathways under this dump for this to happen,” Wazny said.
Turns out the only useful thing against a rubber lava flow is a bulldozer. Heavy equipment operators spent the next 24 hours entombing the fire, while Wazny’s crews rehydrated them in their overheated cabs.
Then fire investigators and state hazardous waste regulators went to work trying to figure out if Tire Mountain had finally, irrevocably, breached the uneasy, decades-long truce over a consumer product that everybody needs now and nobody wants later.
One tire can be shredded in 8 seconds
Approximately 315 million tires wear out and depart their U.S. host vehicles each year. Estimates vary, but only about 125 million of those get recycled.
In Colorado, 7.5 million tires needed to be — what’s the word? — repurposed, in 2019. Some of those were trucked in for dumping from out of state. Let us anticipate your next question: Yes, that is legal, and no, there is nothing we can do about it, something about Interstate Commerce something something The Constitution.
Wyoming gifted us 321,000 used tires last year.
Good news: 6.8 million of Colorado’s newly-generated used tires didn’t go into the ground.
Bad news: That means nearly 600,000 did.
Every couple of years, a new entrepreneur comes along with a new recycling possibility for tires. Usually involving nuclear-level heat. Or ultrasonic shock waves. Or treating them with overwhelming disdain until they fall apart from sheer humiliation. Tires are the perpetual motion machines, the unattainable vision quest of the recycling world. All that petroleum and steel-belting. Just sitting there.
A person could watch tire shredding videos all day. A person could start watching tire shredding videos and not come out of this trance until three hours later. Eight-hundred-pound tractor tires melt into the machines like a glazed donut in hot coffee.
The tire bounces on top of the relentless rolling shredders for a few seconds, as if to say, “It won’t happen to me, it won’t happen to me.” It does happen to them. Every time. Sometimes the operators leave the metal rim in just for fun, a little extra crunch.
It’s all quite satisfying. Until you realize that in the 8 seconds it took to shred one tire, 48 other used tires were sent to a U.S. landfill.
Mixing tire chips into road paving was going to use up a bunch of them, at one point. But add too many chips and the pavement falls apart, so it’s been a small assist. Builders started making playground cushions out of rubber chips or mats. They work fine. But there’s only so many playgrounds. And the dusty, chemical-laden smell is more prison yard than school yard.
Off-the-grid dwellers rammed dirt inside tires and piled up walls for “earth ship” houses, or baled, stacked and adobe-ied them, making bulbous homes that looked like a python had swallowed a gas station.
One big home could use up 22,000 tires.
Number of days it takes Colorado to throw away that many tires: One.
Washington state tried using shredded tires to fill ravines and support highway bridges across them. Colorado did the same thing in Glenwood Canyon. Turns out that rusting steel belting creates heat that spontaneously combusts into tire fires, starting deep inside what was once the ravine.
Cars found it inconvenient to drive upon a bridge of flames. States had to dig up the shredded tire bridges.
The Scrap Tire News website offers a book for sale called “Tire Recycling is Fun.” The typeface is similar to that used in the title credits for the hallucinatory 1970s children’s show “H.R. Pufnstuf.” The 50-page manual is, in its own words, “gorgeously illustrated.” Step-by-step craft ideas include a tire swing and a tire garden. It is a Sky Mall for threadbare Michelins. A personal favorite is The Four Tier Tire Water Fountain. It may be a bit fancy for your taste.
The great tire grift
When would-be tire recycling moguls couldn’t make the technology work, they got inventive with the financing.
Magnum D’Or was a Florida-based firm boasting a shredder operation in Quebec that bought Tire Mountain for supply in the early 2000s. Magnum D’Or claimed to be possibly good at separating useful rubber from useless steel belting, but was definitely good at creatively writing press releases.
Example: Announcing “the successful execution of several new implications in order to increase production for crumb rubber and rubber nuggets to help meet the ever so high demand.”
Magnum D’Or sold ever so high amounts of publicly-traded stock. Those 60 million tires near Hudson were a gold mine, and only they had the map.
The Securities & Exchange Commission was less enthusiastic. They filed civil claims accusing the company and outside agents of manipulating stock sales and recycling the proceeds back to look like solid financing. The ever-so-high demand was faked. When Magnum D’Or was boosting its share prices with press releases touting $130 million in contracts for its chipped tires, it in fact had $85,070 in annual revenue.
SEC and class-action plaintiffs were also miffed that Magnum D’Or kept lying about its gold mine — Tire Mountain. While the Florida company was inflating its penny stock shares with bold press releases, it neglected to mention the Colorado landfill was in bankruptcy and might cling to its rubber treasure for some time.
Magnum D’Or executives settled with the SEC for more than $8 million in illegal profit payback and fines.
Every day, the tires piled higher. Between the opening and closing bell of the stock market on any given day, another 3,000-plus tires go into Colorado landfills.
We pay a fee to do something about all this. You’ve probably noticed. Every time somebody buys a tire, they pay $1.25 to eventually dispose of it. For years the state’s hazardous waste division has used that money to oversee the tire monofills, pay people who do in fact reuse tires, and offer small grants to new recycling dreamers.
There were two recent glorious years when Colorado saw more tires come out of its landfills than went in.
None of this progress came from once-promising innovations like rammed-earth vacation homes or chipped playground drift. Landfill attrition came in the form of enormous blast furnaces at a cement-making kiln in Lyons, and another in Pueblo.
At cement plants, tires are shredded to a crumble and injected into a flame like a turbo jet, scorching limestone and sand into “clinker.” Burning tire chunks can reduce the need for buying coal fuel by about 15%. But the system is costly to keep running, so it’s mostly a wash. That’s where the state’s tire fee comes in.
If the state is paying you a fee to make each tire disappear in cement, then yes, you will go dig ancient tires out of Tire Mountain and accept a pat on the back along with the check. If the state is not, then you will not.
The state’s hungry cement kilns pulled 4.7 million tires out of the piles in 2016 and another 1.7 million in 2017. Some of those nasty rubber mesas at Hudson finally melted.
The only other significant use of shredded tires at that point was as “alternative daily cover” at trash landfills. Dumps must cover each day’s additions with something to hold down the stench and the blowaways. Tire chips work, as does gravel, treated sewage sludge or shredded cars.
Shredded tires meant to improve dumps also catch on fire. In Iowa City, Iowa, a 3-foot layer of tire shred meant to line the bottom of a landfill caught fire and burned the equivalent of 1.3 million tires. Burning for a couple of weeks, this grand melting created 150,000 gallons of oil.
Colorado’s great tire dig-up stopped on Jan. 1, 2018, when the relatively high tire disposal fee sunsetted. State regulators rue the day the shredder music died. “We were making progress,” said David Snapp, program manager for state health’s Division of Hazardous Materials and Waste Management.
The demise of the tire fee revealed a concrete truth: If you want tires recycled, dump them within a short drive of a cement plant. Fountain is home to one of Colorado’s three massive tire monofills. Despite loss of the per-tire payment, the Pueblo cement kiln kept taking tires out of Fountain’s sandy storage pits a few miles to the north. To the tune of 1 million tires taken out of the ground last year.
It has only 25 million left.
Exasperated regulators across the nation try tire fee and dump-permitting systems over and over again because if they don’t, the alternative is much worse.
In northern Virginia, a dump operated for decades by an owner described as “irascible” built up 9 million tires in piles 80-feet high. A few days after the county finally told him to stop taking new tires, a fire started. It burned for nine months. Ever since, the Rhinehart Fire has been legendary in fire fighting manuals.
After it was out, the owner defied state orders and took in 1 million more tires.
Rhinehart became a Superfund site, as federal agents scrambled to stop a sub-tire-annean river of 500,000 gallons of oil from melted tires flowing downhill, into town, and on into the Potomac River that serves drinking water to Washington, D.C. The cleanup took $12 million. Over 19 years.
You can’t legislate them away
Colorado periodically threatens to close tire dumps forever. They even pass legislation saying that.
They never mean it.
State legislation passed in 2009 said tire monofills had to close for good by 2019. The law did not say how that could happen when the fee to encourage recycling would drop by nearly two-thirds in 2018.
Legislators passed a new bill in 2014.
How it started: Monofills were to stop taking tires by 2018 and close for good by 2024. How it’s going: Colorado monofills piled up 594,589 more tires in 2019.
The 2014 bill was quite specific: Colorado’s three monofills had to recycle two tires for every one tire they took in until the scheduled closure in 2024. Of the three monofills — Hudson, Fountain and one in Sedgwick County, near the border with Nebraska — only one has a current waiver from that ironclad rule: Sedgwick, because there’s no cement kiln or other large market nearby.
Another bill passed in 2019 said state health could no longer give waivers at all on the 2-to-1 recycling ratio. This time they really meant it. Unless there’s a fire. Then waivers are OK.
They also revived the waste tire fee, which had lapsed. Without a subsidy for using scrap tires, the state said, cement kilns aren’t as eager to take tire shred for fuel. Landfills use gravel instead of rubber chunks for their daily cover. And when the state budget went south because of COVID-19, lawmakers snatched the revived cleanup fund to help balance the books.
Colorado didn’t seem to notice much that Tire Mountain was still growing instead of shrinking, until the fire in July made it impossible to look away.
State inspectors went to Tire Mountain, officially known as CH2E Waste Tire Monofill and Tire Recycling Center, in November, and sent a notice of violations in December that included:
- Failure to meet the 2-for-1 recycling minimum
- Failure to charge state-required dumping fees and forward them to the state
- Pushing roadway dirt onto the fires, making roads impassable for the next fire
- Stacking tires too high
- Accepting tires from unregistered haulers
CH2E, the company that took over Tire Mountain sometime after reality shredded Magnum D’Or’s schemes, must answer to the alleged violations by early 2021. Potential state sanctions always come with the softener that if a landfill is forced to close, ditches across eastern Colorado start filling up with stray tires.
CH2E did not return phone calls or mailed requests for comment.
Tall pickers and steady shredders are back at work on the front lot of Tire Mountain, as the owners await word from state regulators. The massive tire pits are no longer as lonely on the high plain as they used to be. Just to the west, less than a windy tire roll away, sits the fast-expanding Rattlesnake utility-scale solar power array, covering acre after acre.
United Power buys the electricity from Rattlesnake and sends it just a few miles to run pumps, compressors and floodlights for Weld County oil wells, one of the richest petroleum fields in North America.
The oil gets made into tires.
The tires wind up next door at Tire Mountain.
If tires ever fell apart on their own, the oil might seep back into the Niobrara Basin from where it came. But vulcanization never sleeps.