POMEROY, Wash. Yellowstone National Park has its geysers and boiling geothermal springs. Up in this rural part of Washington, populated by farmers, ranchers and livestock, they've got a steaming road-not quite the tourist attraction one might hope for.
Worldwide publicity about a section of roadway outside Pomeroy-with a substrate built partially with scrap tire chips that have caught fire-has produced a lot of guffaws. But it's no laughing matter as far as the county engineer and others are concerned.
``It stinks like burned rubber,'' complained Clay Barr, director of emergency services for Garfield County, where the roadway is.
Mike Selivanoff, the county's only engineer, gets a bit steamed himself over reports about what has become his unique problem.
``We do not have a road on fire,'' he insisted. ``There's just no telling what kind of embellishments the media has made out of this.''
Actually, the 350-foot stretch of roadway over a 50-foot deep ravine is a recycling experiment gone awry. In the fall of 1994, the county began collecting some 9,500 cubic yards of scrap tire chips, each about four-by-eight inches in size, from the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE).
One variety, shredded in a hammermill, still contained the nylon cords and steel belts.
``They would not compact well, were more springy and tougher to handle,'' Mr. Selivanoff said. And, when used to fill the ravine, they left a lot of air pockets.
So the county asked the DOE for a cleaner-looking chip without exposed cords or wires.
The roadway, in the state's southeastern corner, was completed last May, replacing a hairpin turn that was difficult for wide farm machinery. Only 10 to 20 vehicles travel it daily.
An estimated half million shredded scrap tires, augmented by gravel and topsoil, were used as fill in the ravine and roadbed.
Then in August 1995, flash flooding created a 20-foot-deep lake behind the road fill. That's when the trouble began.
Mr. Selivanoff hypothesized that the water started a chemical reaction, accelerating rusting of the exposed steel in the tire chips. The oxidation process generated heat in the pockets of air between the chips, possibly igniting them.
Now, there's steam coming up from cracks in the road and at least one campfire-sized pocket of flame on an embankment near the ravine's bottom. Mr. Selivanoff conceded: ``It can be alarming to some motorists.''
A month ago the county's worried fire chief ordered the remote smoldering road closed and the old section reopened.
State and county officials met Feb. 9 to discuss solutions, but Mr. Selivanoff said they're leaning toward using the situation as a learning experience.
``We tend to favor seeing this (chemical) reaction through to its conclusion. . . to see what byproducts come out of it, such as leachates and other compounds,'' he said. ``Then we can quantify them, see how much there is and what temperatures we have-then we'll know a whole lot more about it.''
He's guessing it will take 18 to 24 months before the reaction peaks and the chips eventually burn themselves out. Worst case scenario: The county would have to remove the material.
But he believes ``there's nothing wrong with driving across a road that's venting steam out the sides. We just need to keep adding gravel fill,'' which the county has been doing regularly since a section of the road began settling.
Meanwhile, because of the publicity the roadway has generated, he has received numerous calls-and suggested solutions-from experts familiar with tire chips.
``We make a lot of deep fills in our roads. If I can get by the politicians, I'd do this again, particularly if the (shredded tire) material is free-and it usually is. It's a good use, but not everyone in the whole world shares my opinion.''
As for the phenomenon becoming a tourist attraction, Mr. Selivanoff admitted at times ``you can't see through the steam. It's kind of scenic more than anything else. Like driving through Yellowstone National Park.''
But he's reluctant to say anything too lighthearted, fearing the media will ``make it look like we're not taking this seriously. We are.''