Late on a Friday afternoon, Chris Houtchens pulls in for his last pickup of the day at Rex Tire in Old Colorado City.
It's been a slow day, by Houtchens' account. After a morning spent doing the rounds of tire and auto shops in Denver, Houtchens' trailer holds just 550 tires, most too worn out for him to resell.
Though shops pay him $1.75 to take regular car tires and more than $20 for the enormous ones that come off tractors, collecting them is expensive. It requires gas for his truck, pay for two workers and the expense of recycling tires that can't be resold. He spent $550 first thing in the morning just to get rid of 12 tons of shot tires he'd collected earlier, paying a recycler to grind them up so they can be used as mulch or landfill cover.
"Our goal is to break even," Houtchens says, describing the financial tightrope he walks each day so that the company he runs with his father, American Tire Exchange, can turn a profit selling usable tires in the states or in Mexico.
Now, Houtchens feels a jolt coming as state lawmakers consider a bill that would reshuffle the way state tire disposal money is spent. He fears it will rock the current marketplace with a flood of worn rubber coming from two massive tire landfills, one of which — the Midway tire landfill — sits on the southern edge of El Paso County, brimming with more than 30 million tires.
The waste tire business may be easy to ignore, but everyone who drives — or so much as rides in a car or bus — has contributed to a statewide tire problem. Colorado had about 50 million tires in 2007, the nation's largest stockpile, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association. About 80 percent of the more than 5 million additional waste tires produced each year get recycled, but many others are thrown in landfills or onto illegal piles.
To avoid a huge public health risk from tire fires, as well as the ugly sight of tire dumps, the state is trying to encourage more recycling while eliminating the stockpiles.
Houtchens is intimately familiar with the volatile business of handling spent tires. He believes the new bill could have unintended consequences if it makes it harder to get fresh waste tires recycled: "It's going to create more problems than it solves."
The problem of dealing with waste tires looks different depending on where you sit. Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan, whose district includes the Midway tire landfill, sees the pile as a raging danger for her constituents: "In my district, we have a catastrophic risk."
Looper, a co-sponsor of House Bill 1018, which was approved Tuesday by the House Transportation and Energy Committee, is concerned the status quo isn't working, with about 450,000 waste tires getting dumped here from other states each year.
"Our waste tire piles continue to grow," Looper says.
Looper's bill spells out changes in how the state's $1.50 tire recycling fee is used and putting administration of the fund under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. A new procedure would help track spent tires.
Under the proposed bill, about $5 million in tire recycling money that is collected each year would be designated just for dealing with tires, particularly for cleaning up sites, but with a new algorithm: 6.67 percent would go to a new fire prevention fund and, starting in 2011, 8.67 percent would go to a new law enforcement fund.
Colorado Energy Recyclers, LLC, bought the landfill in December 2008 for $2 million, with plans to use the tires as a fuel source for a new concrete plant in Pueblo built by GCC, a Mexico-based construction giant. None of the tires have yet been used in the plant, or even shredded, but Reid is upbeat.
While Midway used to be a tire mountain, it's now divided into a bunch of tire reservoirs, each 50 to 60 feet deep. If a fire were to break out, the new roadways would give firefighters space to keep the fire from spreading.
Verne Stuessy, manager at GCC's Pueblo plant, says the goal is to start shredding by the end of this year or early next year.
Under a law enacted last year, Midway had 10 years to get rid of all its tires. While shredding hasn't started, Stuessy, standing next to a 50-foot deep hole where the landfill has stashed tires for the past year, seems intensely aware of the time element.
"It's got to be gone in nine years," he says. That could be tricky, given the slow concrete market. Stuessy says the Pueblo plant will only run six months in 2010.
Assuming the plant gets up to full production in 2011, it would use between 2 and 2.5 million tires a year. At best, that means GCC will burn through 20 million tires, meaning 10 million or more will need to be sold off for other purposes.
That's part of the reason Houtchens is nervous. The market could easily be saturated with recycled tire products.
Houtchens owns up that he is part of the Midway story: His family started the landfill back in the late 1980s. When the most recent owner went bankrupt, prompting the sale to Colorado Energy Recyclers, Houtchens hoped the tires would be buried for good. That way, the state's current tire recycling network could just focus on new waste tires produced each year.
El Paso County Fire Marshal Jim Reid disagrees, seeing Colorado Energy Recyclers and GCC's cement plant as the best hope that Midway will be permanently erased.
"I've been dealing with this for seven years," Reid says. "I don't want this becoming a Superfund site."
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