State and Spokane County officials worked hard last year to dispose of more than a million old tires piling up near Airway Heights.
They paid to have those tires shredded and buried in a section of road in southeastern Washington.
But then things got weird, and the hoped-for environmental solution became a failed experiment.
For unknown reasons, the shredded tires caught fire, creating oozing, toxic underground tar pits.
Now, six months later, like a fiend from a B-movie, the tires have come back - buried in a landfill not far from the yard where they lay for years.
It cost the state almost a $1 million to haul them away. Digging them out and hauling the goo back to Spokane County cost another $2 million, according to the state Department of Ecology, which managed the removal.
Two years ago, Ecology officials thought turning the 1.4 million tires into tiny pieces of road fill near the town of Pomeroy made sense.
Today, they’re scratching their heads along with everyone else, confused about what went wrong.
Washington state leads the nation in mysterious shredded-tire fires.
In addition to the fire near Pomeroy, state officials had to douse a spontaneous roadway blaze this year near the coastal town of Ilwaco.
That highway project was the only other one in Washington in which a large volume of shredded tires was buried.
“I guess that makes us oh-for-two,” said Mike Hibbler, an Ecology supervisor.
Federal officials are puzzled. They’ve ordered a national moratorium on shredded-tire highway projects until someone can explain what went awry in Washington.
There was a road fire related to shredded tires a year ago in Colorado, but there have been no problems reported with 70 other sites around the country, officials said.
The federal government launched its shredded-tire plan in the early 1990s, saying the road-construction option was better for the environment than burning discarded tires.
Spokane County’s saga started more than five years ago, when officials grew alarmed at two huge piles of tires rising inside storage yards off Hayford Road west of the city.
Most of those tires came from Spokane County and ended up inside two private yards run by John Lindsay and Carl Maak.
In 1994, state officials convinced the owners to hand over the tires for disposal before a serious fire occurred.
The company that shredded them arranged to haul all 12,322 tons to Garfield County. The shreds were used in a 350-foot section of road that was designed to eliminate a hairpin turn on a two-lane highway.
The state paid Tire Shredders Inc. of Goldendale, Wash., $840,000 for that project.
The same company got another $300,000 to dispose of a couple million more old tires from Spokane County. They were shredded and buried in a nearby commercial landfill.
That disposal money came from a $1-per-tire tax approved by the Legislature in 1989.
The state officials who approved the Garfield County project visited the area last fall when the road section started smoking, then caught fire in the middle of winter.
Scientists from coast to coast traveled to Eastern Washington to study the problem, but no one has produced a solid explanation, said Melanie Lee of the state Department of Transportation.
The leading theory blames three factors: rusting steel fibers from radial tires that act like miniature furnaces; rubber-gobbling bacteria that produce acid, adding extra heat; and the insulating effect of the shreds, causing the entire mixture to reach combustion stage.
“As the tires smoldered and burned, they actually began melting down and produced gases and other by-products,” said Ecology’s Hibbler.
In effect, the road became an underground oil refinery. “We found amounts of benzene, toluene and other substances that we couldn’t leave down there,” he added.
So the state hauled away the entire section of road - and then some.
Chemical breakdown of the tires and seeping of liquids had produced twice the volume of material to be removed, Hibbler said.
Instead of just tire shreds, the state had to pay $2 million to dig up 28,000 tons of shreds and contaminated soil.
The contract went to Sanifill of Washington, which dumped the waste at its commercial landfill near the Spokane airport, about four miles west of where the large piles of tires had first gathered.
It cost the state $3 million to clean out the road section near Ilwaco.
That section of road was removed before the Garfield County road was cleaned up.
State officials, worried that the Ilwaco fire was producing dangerous waste that could have posed health hazards, took added steps in the cleanup that were not performed in Garfield County, said Lee, of the Department of Transportation.
Lee, who’s looked at a study examining both Washington tire fires, said the common factor in both seemed to be large amounts of underground water.
The Garfield County road had been covered in water after heavy rainfall last summer. The Ilwaco fire occurred after record rainfalls along the coast, she said.
“What role the water played, I’m not sure anyone knows,” she said.
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