By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service
LANSING – The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is awarding almost $300,000 in its latest round of grants to counties and businesses to clean up 17 scrap tire sites and hold community events where people can bring tires for disposal.
Discarded tires are potential environmental and public health risks, especially when unattended, and there are sites across the state where scrap tires have been sitting for years, even decades.
The largest grant, $35,000, will be used at a site in Lapeer County.
Other counties with tire yards receiving grant money include Wayne, Muskegon, and Hillsdale.
Rhonda Oyer, chief of solid waste management at the DEQ, said the grants are part of an ongoing effort to clean up unregistered scrap tire sites.
“There are around 600,000 scrap tires throughout the state that pose hazards to the environment and people. These grants will go towards cleaning up the larger piles,” Oyer said.
She said that the number of scrap tires has dramatically dropped from 31 million in 1991, the first year of the state’s program.
Registered sites must treat tires with pesticides and drill holes in them to drain standing water to avoid mosquito problems.
“There have been no major problems with scrap tires recently except for a few small tire fires,” Oyer said.
Oyer said the money comes from fees paid when vehicle titles are transferred.
To process the tires, recipients must use a Michigan-based company, like Northern Michigan Scrap Tire Disposal Service in Alpena or Deerpath Recyclers Inc. in Dowagiac that recycle them. They must finish the projects by Aug. 31.
“Most of the recycled tires are made into fuel for power plants but they can also be made into chips to cover waste at landfills, mulch for gardens and playground material,” Oyer said.
Edward Walker, professor of microbiology and entomology at Michigan State University, said scrap tires can be havens for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
“Many species of mosquito larvae live in very small bodies of water and have adapted to live in water that has collected in man-made things like tires,” Walker said.
According to Walker, mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases like West Nile Virus are prevalent at scrap tire sites.
“In Michigan, mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus have been a big problem and scrap tires have been involved in almost all cases,” Walker said.
However, Walker said that people aren’t the only ones afflicted by scrap tire mosquitoes.
“These mosquitoes are also a problem for dogs as they can carry heartworm,”
Walker said, adding that heartworm is the second-leading disease carried by mosquitoes, behind West Nile Virus.
But mosquitoes aren’t the only risk presented by scrap tire piles. They can also lead to fires.
Shane Helmer, chief of the Evart Fire Department, said a 1997 tire fire in Osceola County was the hardest fire he’s ever dealt with.
That tire fire was one of the largest fires ever in Michigan.
“That fire burned for more than 64 hours and burned approximately 1.5 million tires. It took 34 fire departments and 342 firefighters to put it out,” Helmer said, adding that the average fire requires only three or four departments and 15 to 20 firefighters.
According to Helmer, that fire was more difficult to put out because tires burn at a much higher temperature than other flammable materials and cannot be extinguished using normal techniques.
“Water and other chemicals wouldn’t work because the fire was so hot. They would evaporate before they could start working,” Helmer said.
Even if water did reach a tire fire, Helmer said it would just compound the problem.
“The chemicals in the tires that fuel the fires pool underneath the piles and when it gets mixed with water. It just spreads the fuel out, making the fire bigger,” Helmer said.
Because the normal means of putting out fires wouldn’t work, Helmer said firefighters used sand.
“We ended up having to bring in heavy machinery to dump sand on the fire, which is not normal for any fire department,” Helmer said.
And tire fires are also dangerous because of toxic fumes released during burning, he said.
“It’s a major health risk to any person close to the fire. The tires give off a very thick smoke that carries cancer-causing, toxic particulates,” Helmer said.
He said the effects of the 1997 fire were felt in three counties and particulates drifted as far as Mount Pleasant, about 50 miles from Osceola county.
“We had to evacuate everyone within a mile of the fire and it even caused power outages in surrounding areas,” Helmer said.
The high temperatures meant main power lines in the vicinity had to be shut down to avoid the risk of electrical fires, Helmer said.
He added that no amount of preparation could have made the fire easier to control.
“We had the advantage of having some prior knowledge from other places that had dealt with tire fires, but it was still the most difficult fire I’ve ever had to put out,” Helmer said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.