POMEROY, Wash.-Most TV newscasts initially depicted the situation as humorous: two widely separated stretches of public roadway in rural Washington suddenly turning hot and steamy amidst the unmistakable odor of burning rubber from tire chips smoldering far below the pavement's surface. But environmental and highway department officials in the state weren't laughing at the mysterious occurrence of these two simultaneous road fires, which still were smoldering as TIRE BUSINESS went to press March 28.
Nor was the relatively light-hearted network coverage of these events enough to assuage the worries of tire recyclers concerning the future of tire chips in such civil engineering applications as road bed construction or cover material for landfills.
Since news of the fires became widespread in February, use of tire chips in these and other public works projects has fallen off drastically, according to Michael Blumenthal, executive director of the Scrap Tire Management Council (STMC).
The Washington, D.C.-based group is helping to fund research into the causes of these fires, which appear to have resulted from spontaneous combustion of the tire chips used as fill material under the roadbeds of the two highways in question.
Mr. Blumenthal, whose organization has been advocating the use of tire chips for such civil engineering projects, estimated such applications accounted for 12 million to 15 million of the nation's discarded tires in 1995.
Moreover, the council had been
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anticipating this market would continue to grow through 1997. But now that forecast will need to be scaled back, he explained, since the demand for tire chips in civil engineering applications has been ``severely eroded'' by the events in Washington state.
Mr. Blumenthal said he's received calls from across the country, including both state and federal departments of transportation, federal highway administration regional offices and scrap tire processors-all basically saying that ``because of this new occurrence people are putting on hold their scrap tire civil engineering projects.''
He said state authorities in Washington telephoned the council immediately after the fires were discovered, and the STMC has been active in efforts to deal with the problem ``from day one.''
``We have not been a passive observer in this,'' Mr. Blumenthal said, adding that the council is ``not going to sit by and let this valuable market go down the tubes. . . . We're trying to do everything we can to respond.''
On April 8, the STMC plans to host a meeting in Washington, D.C., with University of Maine professor Dana Humphrey who, with financial assistance from the council, has been gathering information at the scene of the two Washington fires. Mr. Humphrey also is preparing a report on the fires for the Federal Highway Administration.
Out of this meeting and subsequent research, the STMC ultimately hopes to publish guidelines to prevent any future occurrence of whatever ignited the fires and reassure potential users of tire shreds.
Meanwhile, Mr. Blumenthal plans to make available whatever information the council has on hand at that date to those attending the American Retreaders Association World Tire Conference & Exhibition, April 17-20 in Louisville, Ky.
Representatives of the ARA's Tire Rubber Recycling Advisory Council will be invited to the Washington, D.C., gathering and to participate in subsequent activities to salvage the situation, which Mr. Blumenthal said will require ``an industry effort.''
The most widely publicized of the two fires occurred on a stretch of roadway in Garfield County in southeastern Washington. The other fire took place nearly 340 miles away in the coastal community of Ilwaco. There, authorities have constructed a series of coffer dams to prevent oil oozing from the underground blaze from reaching and contaminating the nearby Columbia River.
In the case of the Ilwaco project, chips were used in the repair of a washout on the 3-mile loop road of Candby State Park in October. Cracks, odor and steam were reported in December. Authorities estimated that 30 to 40 gallons of oil are being generated per hour by the underground fire.
At the Garfield County site, an estimated 9,500 cubic yards of chips, about 4X8 inches in size, were used in 1994 to fill a 50-ft.-deep ravine underneath the road.
The trouble there apparently began in August 1995, when flash flooding created a 20-ft.-deep lake behind the road fill. The water is believed to have started a chemical reaction that ultimately ignited the rubber in the chips.
State DOT officials, calling the two situations a ``pending ecological disaster that must be repaired immediately,'' have applied for federal aid to dig up the road beds and remove the smoldering chips. Meanwhile, the state has declared a moratorium on further projects using tire chips in highway construction.