COLUMBIA — Nearly all of Parker Naylor’s sprawling 12-acre property just east of Columbia is bright green, featuring thick grass, scores of trees and flowers emerging from planted beds. The ditch behind his house, however, is the exception: It’s choked with black rubber.
Naylor has a tire dump on his property — and he’s not alone. Although the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has made considerable progress over the past 20 years, tire dumps remain a problem.
There are at least five known dumping sites in Boone County that hold a total of at least 4,000 scrap tires. One of the sites near Hinkson Creek is a recurring problem area where several anonymous dumpers regularly leave tires.
Tire dumping is illegal, and the department has a staff dedicated to investigating dump sites and to coordinating efforts to clean them up. Thanks in large part to strict regulations and a special fee that Missouri consumers pay when they buy new tires, the problem isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. Yet, landowners such as Naylor continue to deal with it.
“Through time, with the heavy rains, it’s kind of unearthed them,” Naylor said of the hundreds of tires on his land. “We started (cleaning up) back there when we were picking up brush and stuff. We just figured we needed to do something about it, with all the West Nile virus and all that, just get them cleaned up.”
The tires are more than an eyesore. They can harbor insects or animals that carry diseases.
“They’re good at holding water,” said Chris Nagel, enforcement chief for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Scrap Tire Unit in Jefferson City. “You get a lot of mosquito problems, West Nile virus.”
Tires don’t decompose, either, which means they can emit toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater over time. They’re also flammable.
“When they do ignite — they’re petroleum-based — they smolder and they smoke,” Nagel said. “They don’t just burn clean, so you have a lot of pollution, and you also have water runoff issues from the melted petroleum. You get a significant amount of emissions, so you impact your air quality in a localized area for sure. Sometimes, it can go to extended areas even miles away.”
In 2005, more than 1.2 million tires burned in a fire at a site in Polk County in southwest Missouri. Other dumps around the state — with an amount ranging from a few hundred to several thousand tires — pose similar hazards today. But that’s a far cry from what it used to be, Nagel said.
“We’ve cleaned up 15 million tires since 1990, and we estimate about 300,000 that are still in known dumps and half a million that remain unknown,” Nagel said. “There is much less magnitude of dumping than there was before the last decade.”
Jim Salmons, a licensed scrap-tire hauler, said he believes the worst days of tire dumping are over.
“What happens is that a lot of your tires that are dumped illegally, it happened 20, 30, 40 years ago when the rules and regulations weren’t so strict and enforced as they are today,” Salmons said.
Scrap tire haulers are licensed by the state to take tires to a permitted scrap tire end-user or processor, such as factories that turn tires into crumb rubber and power plants that use tire-derived fuel.
The dump on Naylor’s property is believed to be more than 20 years old.
“It’s not a recurring problem anymore,” said Dan Fester, scrap-tire unit chief for the Department of Natural Resources. “Tire dumping is not a common issue anymore.”
The department has spent the past decade tightening regulations of tire hauling and disposal. Salmons has to renew his license every year. The department constantly checks his records and those of the tire companies he serves.
“Our numbers have to match,” Salmons said. “That gets them away from illegal dumping. If you’re in the tire business, you’re supposed to keep a log of what you do.”
The department has more enforcement power than ever before. Permitted scrap-tire haulers who are caught dumping illegally can lose their licenses.
Anyone caught dumping tires will be subject to fines that can reach thousands of dollars per day.
Jacob Cross is the department’s northeast Missouri scrap-tire investigator. He spends his days traveling across the state to myriad locations, where he either evaluates dump sites reported by the owners or conducts unannounced inspections of tire companies or sites brought to his attention through complaints to the department.
During a typical inspection, Cross takes a look at the site, estimates the number of tires and then investigates the property owner’s story on how the tires got there.
When he evaluates tire companies and haulers, Cross reviews the locations they use for tire storage for safety hazards and then works with company administrators to ensure their tire storage records are being kept correctly and up-to-date.
A recent trip to Columbia brought Cross to multiple sites for check-ins and inspections.
On Naylor’s land, Cross estimated there were more than 1,000 tires in the ditch and confirmed that Naylor is enrolled in the department’s Tire Dump Roundup program.
The program encourages property owners to self-report dumps on their land. For those with between 500 and 10,000 tires, the Natural Resources Department and inmates from the Missouri Department of Corrections remove the tires free of charge the first time.
Although many of the tire dumps that remain today were established years ago, some are more recent.
At Cosmo Self Storage, 1410 Creasy Springs Road, owner Drew Anderson discovered a recent problem with a customer that led to some investigation on his part.
“The person who had rented his unit from me did not pay up on his unit after two months, and I cut his lock after three months,” Anderson said. “I rolled up the door, and there were these tires.”
The garage-like storage area remains packed to the brim with almost 900 tires, all deposited by a permitted scrap-tire hauler whom Anderson and the department declined to name pending the resolution of the case.
Cleanup is not as urgent because the enclosed area prevents the tires from releasing toxic chemicals into the air and groundwater, and it keeps rainwater from getting in the tires and allowing mosquitoes to breed. But Anderson will get some help from the roundup program in the near future.
The department’s scrap-tire unit was formed to stop illegal tire-dumping in the state, but its priorities continue to evolve. Nagel and Fester said the unit’s focus is developing end markets for scrap tires. Crumb rubber, or shredded tires, can be used in power plants, playground surfacing and even asphalt.
“Crumb rubber that is produced from scrap tires now is actually a cheaper cost than a lot of petroleum products are,” Nagel said. “Scrap tires are starting to accumulate values.”
In fact, the MU Power Plant has been using tire-derived fuel for several years. Most of that fuel is produced from the scrap tires collected by the department.
Another priority is working to ensure the scrap-tire unit continues to receive the money it needs to do its job. Most of that money comes from a 50-cent fee embedded into the price of all new tires. Since 1990, the department has spent more than $17 million on cleanup and research grants, all derived from the fee.
“The tire fee is something we use to maintain a presence in order to keep tire haulers, retailers and processors in line,” Nagel said. “The cost that can be saved by illegally dumping tires by a hauler is significant enough that without a force of deterrence, they will illegally dump them.”
Fester said they have support for the fee.
“The regulated community supports us because a dumper who is out there charging less undercuts their business,” Fester said.
The tire fee expired temporarily in 2004, and Nagel estimates 500,000 tires were illegally dumped before the fee was reinstated in 2006. It is up for renewal again in 2009. Neither Nagel nor Fester wants it to expire.
“We won’t have the ability to do cleanups anymore,” Nagel said. “Our fee right now pays for our enforcement staff. If we don’t have those staff, we only have the staff that deals with normal solid waste. They are already inundated. We’ll start to see the recurrence of the dumps. We won’t have the means to clean them up. It’ll go until it’s bad enough, and then people will demand: ‘We want the fee back, we want these dumps cleaned up.’”