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Massive Pile of Tires Fuels Controversial Energy Plan

November 30, 1987|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

The private tire dump here, known as the "Modesto Pile," was started 20 years ago by Ed Filbin, who collects discarded tires throughout Northern and Central California. Filbin's fleet of trucks are still hauling 10,000 to 20,000 tires a day into the deep canyon in the wrinkled foothills west of I-5, worried county officials said.

Filbin began trucking tires into Ed's Tire Disposal even before construction of I-5. County officials said that when Filbin began, the area was remote and suitable as a dump site. Although the operation is now considered incompatible with current zoning and a fire hazard, county officials said they have no way to control the growing mountain of discarded rubber because the dump predates the current zoning.

In 1985, Oxford Energy leased land from Filbin and obtained a permit from the county to build the 14-megawatt generation plant, using technology developed by Gumi-MayerFilbin, in Landau, West Germany.

These days, Filbin is unavailable for comment.

Oxford Energy officials heard about the Modesto Pile three years ago and approached both Filbin and the county, proposing the tire-to-energy project. Filbin agreed to lease Oxford land for the plant and to supply the tires for the furnaces.

County officials said they would agree to the deal if the company would do three things: sharply reduce the inflow of tires to the dump, install extensive fire prevention systems immediately and eventually eliminate the huge dump altogether.

The company's environmental consultants, Radian Corp. of Sacramento, looked at the fire potential and shook their heads.

"No one has ever had a tire pile that big catch on fire," said James Rouge, the senior environmental consultant. "If it caught fire, it could take three to seven years to burn out . . . (and) would blacken the skies clear to Bakersfield," 250 miles to the south.

Earthen dams and catch basins large enough to contain at least a million gallons of oil runoff are being built down-canyon from the pile, Stanislaus County Environmental Resources Director Gordon Dewers said. The company has also agreed to cut the huge mound into smaller units, leaving firefighting lanes between the stacks, he said. Oxford has already posted a 24-hour guard on the pile.

Oxford is buying Filbin's tire collection business and has agreed to reduce the inflow of tires to the dump, starting Jan. 1. But getting rid of the stack itself will take time.

Mountain of Tires

With the furnaces roaring day and night, Oxford engineers said, it would take eight years for this West German-designed plant to burn its way through the mountain of tires.

However, to make the plant economically feasible, Oxford insists that it needs to continue importing some tires, while reducing the pile more slowly. The county agreed, giving the company 30 years to eliminate the dump and setting yearly reduction quotas.

The longer time period is needed for economic and competitive reasons, Oxford Vice President Gordon Marker said. He explained that the plant must have a guaranteed fuel supply to repay the construction debt that was financed by $38 million in interest-free, 30-year bonds sold by the California Alternate Energy Source Financing Authority.

Even though they will eventually use up the tires now piled in the dump, company officials said they will continue to keep a reserve of 1 million to 2 million tires on hand to guarantee a fuel supply. These reserves will be stored in several small piles, subject to fire controls.

Protesting Agreement

Opponents of the tire-burning project--unsuccessful in their initial attempts to block construction of the plant--are now protesting the agreement, saying the tire pile is a public nuisance and must be eliminated quickly.

"At the rate the county's negotiated, they'll burn 130 million tires in 30 years; that's not a reduction," said Gordon E. Hart, executive director of the Ecology Action Education Institute, a Modesto-based environmental group. Opponents have taken their complaints to the state attorney general's office.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Kenneth Alex said he is considering abatement action, based on the ruling of a New Hampshire court that found a tire pile a third the size of this one posed an "unjustifiable and unreasonable risk" to public health and safety. Alex said he would like to see the size of the Modesto Pile quickly reduced.

Oxford officials argue that burning the pile down as fast as possible would be environmentally short-sighted.

"Northern California is generating 8 to 9 million tires a year," Marker said. "Those tires will just get dumped somewhere else if we don't burn them. . . . Economically it makes sense to combine the disposal, rather than use up the pile."

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