WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2004) — From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, millions of waste tires are making life hazardous for residents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have 5 million tires looking for an end-use,” noted Jorge Castillo, border affairs director at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in El Paso. And that's only an approximate count of the tires in dumps and impoverished communities along the Rio Grande in Mexico and Texas.
It doesn't, for example, include the approximately 200,000 tires that burned last June at a multi-million tire dump in Mexicali, in Baja California just across the border.
“They were fortunate that they were able to put out the fire in two or three days,” said Scott D. Storment, acting director for project development-new sectors at North American Development Bank in San Antonio.
In the town of Matamoros, Mr. Storment added, there's a tire dump fire that probably will never be put out, “because it's been burning deep down inside the dump.”
Angry Mexican officials have suggested classifying scrap tires as hazardous waste, or mandating the shipment of Mexican scrap tires across the border to the U.S. for disposal. Scrap tire abatement experts, meanwhile, are working toward finding economically viable markets for the stockpiled tires along the border—in time, they hope, to prevent disaster.
A blessing and a curse
It is a common misconception that the U.S. ships its scrap tires across the border into Mexico, according to Michael Blumenthal, senior technical director at the Rubber Manufacturers Association. That is illegal, and no one actively imports or exports scrap tires from one country to the other.
“But a lot of used tires are being imported into Mexico by Mexican tire collectors and the used tire industry,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
Used tire stores have proliferated in Mexican border towns, where many residents are simply too poor to afford new tires. To be legal, the tires must have at least 3/32 inches of tread depth, “and most are just above the legal U.S. limit,” he said.
Mexican law allows shipments of 1 million used tires into the country every year. But the law is not always rigidly enforced, and used tires can always enter Mexico in other ways besides in dedicated truckloads driven by used tire dealers.
“There's also a fair amount of used vehicles brought from the U.S. into Mexico,” Mr. Blumenthal said, “and what kind of tires do you think are on those vehicles?”
Since the used tire business has no quality standards, some of the tires in the shipments to Mexico are bound to be scrap tires, he noted. But even those tires that are still usable present a problem.
“Some of the tires are not at all useful and get tossed,” he said. “Other tires will get used, and then the buyers exchange their worn-out tires for other used tires, and the old tires get piled up. The longevity of used tires along the border is probably one to six months. It really is a very vicious circle.”
A recent article in the Houston Chronicle described impoverished residents of Matamoros and other border towns living with tire piles towering above their shacks, plagued constantly by the swarms of mosquitoes that breed in the tires. Mosquito-borne diseases are becoming a major concern in the area, according to Mr. Storment.
“Tires are vectors for water-borne illnesses, and there's a huge problem documented at the border,” he said. “As far as I know, the West Nile virus is not the primary water-borne illness here. But dengue fever has been a problem for some years. Since 1999 in Laredo (Texas) alone, there have been 36 documented cases of dengue fever. And those are only the reported cases, in an area where people don't always seek health care.”
There have never been any scrap tire regulations—whether federal, regional or local—in Mexico, and the state scrap tire law in Texas lapsed in 1998. Nor is there much of a drive toward cracking down on used tire dealers, who provide a desperately needed product to the economically depressed border population.
“We certainly agree there is a market for low-cost used tires,” Mr. Castillo said. “While it's a good thing for those who need them, there needs to be a way to get rid of the scrap tires they generate.”
There are several major urban areas along the Rio Grande, Mr. Castillo noted. Besides Laredo and Brownsville/Matamoros, those include El Paso/Juarez, McAllen and Reynosa.
“It's the same in any metro area, if you consider New York, Philadelphia and the like,” he said. “If you go to the poorer sections of town, you will find piles of scrap tires.”
Gold along the Rio Grande?
“As far as scrap tires go, Mexico is in the same place the states were 18 years ago,” Mr. Blumenthal said. But he and the others said there is a concerted effort taking place to change that situation as quickly as possible.
Legislation, regulation and market development—the same methods used in the U.S. and around the world—are the key to solving Mexico's scrap tire problem, he said. The RMA has been working with U.S. and Mexican officials and businesses toward a scrap tire program, and Mr. Blumenthal said he visited Mexico several times in 2003, attending meetings set up by border officials.
“What we're offering is to show them how to do it, but also telling them that they have to get to it sooner rather than later,” he said. “We are ready, willing and able to help any way we can.”
The TCEQ has made sure to bring used tire dealers to the table to discuss possible solutions with them and bring them into the loop, according to Mr. Castillo. “We're trying to look at a variety of solutions,” he said. “Our agency is more micro-business-oriented, more attuned to micro-business solutions involving small, mom-and-pop operations.”
While tire-derived fuel and asphalt rubber have been part of the TCEQ's discussions, it is also interested in diverting some scrap tires toward small operations to manufacture recycled rubber products such as industrial and floor mats, Mr. Castillo said. There are also proposals to ship tires to a cement kiln 150 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, he added.
Probably the best hopes for scrap tire market development along the U.S.-Mexico border reside with the North American Development Bank (NADB). Created in 1993 under the auspices of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the $3 billion NADB is funded equally by the U.S. and Mexican governments to aid in the financing, long-term development and effective operation of environmental infrastructure projects within 100 kilometers of either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Two scrap tire projects the NADB is helping with are in Juarez and Mexicali, according to Mr. Storment. Juarez has been approved for a grant for a tire shredder for its landfills, he said, but town officials are now reconsidering their plans, thinking instead about paying a small tipping fee to an area cement kiln to use whole tires from the Juarez dump as fuel.
Mexicali, meanwhile, wants to develop a small-scale market within its region for the manufacture of rubber mats and other recycled rubber products, he said.
Another proposed project that greatly interests the NADB is one by Alternative Energy Partners L.L.C., a Sugar Land, Texas-based tires-to-energy firm that wants to partner with El Paso Electric to build a TDF-powered electric plant in the El Paso area. Mr. Storment said this was a $10 million project to build a five-kilowatt facility.
Unfortunately, that project is “stuck in the politics right now,” said J. Wayne Rodrigue, president of Alternative Energy Partners (AEP). He referred to a $500 million, solid-waste-powered gasification project proposed by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consultant to the mayor of El Paso.
“We were about to close the deal when the new mayor brought in this EPA hotshot,” Mr. Rodrigue said. The concern, he added, was that the AEP electric project would compete for tires with the gasification project.
AEP is also looking at other sites for TDF-powered electric plants, he said.
Of all the proposals for scrap tires at the U.S.-Mexico border, the one getting the most sharply mixed reviews is that from Jaime Betancourt Anaya, director of environmental control at Matamoros, to have legislation introduced at the federal level in Mexico to classify tires as hazardous waste.
Such a law, Mr. Betancourt Anaya told the Houston Chronicle, would give him the authority to stop illegal importation of tires and allow him to charge fees that would generate enough money for scrap tire disposal and recycling projects.
The RMA, for obvious reasons, opposes any such proposal. “Does something have to happen in Mexico? Absolutely,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “But classifying tires as hazardous waste probably won't have the effect they seek. It will make it more difficult to create viable markets for tires, not easier.”