Burn Tires vs. Clean Air

ALBANY, NY: Paul Tick and Tina Lieberman spoke at the January 15, 2020 SPB dinner about plans by Lafarge to burn tire at its cement factory in Ravena, twelve miles south of Albany. Paul began his comments with saying that when he moved to the capital region 32 years ago, he immediately looked for activists to hook up with and found Save the Pine Bush. 

Paul quickly reviewed important Lafarge events of the past 26 months. In late 2017, Coeymans residents and allies worked quickly and successfully when we learned that Lafarge hoped to burn one-third of Connecticut’s solid waste in Ravena. Public pressure blocked the plan. Over the past year, Lafarge has tried to begin tire burning in Ravena. [Ravena is a small village that lies within the much larger Town of Coeymans.] The Coeymans Town Board passed a local Clean Air Law that requires nearly continuous monitoring of many air contaminants, essentially blocking tire burning. Three candidates supported by Lafarge then won seats on the town board in November’s election as did a Lafarge-supported candidate for the Albany County Legislature (ACL). After the election, the ACL began consideration of the town law that is expected to be gutted or ignored by the new town board. The bill was tabled for further tweaking at the ACL’s final meeting of the year in mid-December, at which many spoke in favor of the law.. On that same day, more than one-half of the ACL signed a letter urging Albany County Executive Dan McCoy to issue an executive order barring any tire burning for four months, while the ACL carefully evaluates and holds a hearing on the proposed new Albany County Clean Air Law. 

Paul said enactment of the 1970 federal Clean Air Law helped immensely reduce auto and vehicle tail pipe emissions. He said 325 million used car tires are discarded annually in the US, including 18-20 million in New York. Tire fires are difficult to extinguish and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allows tire burning. Paul said Nova Scotia recently banned Lafarge from burning tires and then reversed itself a year later. He said millions of tires are dumped illegally, often along roads and in water bodies. Paul said both Lafarge and its Steelworkers union claim tire burning is safe. If the tire burning ever occurs, some of the coal that Lafarge now uses would be replaced with tires, increasing profits. 

Tina said tires are now piling up at the Port of Coeymans,located near the Lafarge property. Paul said air pollution increases when tires are added to coal burn mixes. He said the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a tire hierarchy for dealing with used tires–descending order, re-purposing, recycling, burning, and land-filling as the acceptable ways to deal with discarded tires.

Tina said the Albany Times Union recently reported that in 2006, DEC issued to Lafarge a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) that would allow Lafarge to burn up to 4.6 million whole tires per year in Ravena. Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck was told by the DEC the BUD expired in 2017, but DEC revised its regs to renew the BUD. Tina said no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was required for the BUD. Tina said 106 million tires were burned in 2017 for fuel in the US, with 46, 25, and 25 percents in cement kilns, electricity generating stations, and pulp and paper mills, respectively. Tina said Mike Ewall of Energy Justice network believes tire burning increases specific air pollutants by up to 1000. Tina said there are two public schools located next to Lafarge.

Tina said the Ravena cement plant is a “gold mine” for Lafarge, and, contrary to rumors Lafarge workers may be spreading and believing themselves, it is not likely to be closed if the tire burning is permanently blocked. During the past decade, Lafarge invested $300 million upgrading the factory, partly in response to high mercury emissions, large amounts of high quality limestone are located nearby, and Lafarge is very close to the Hudson River and a port, and large markets for its cement. Tina said Lafarge currently employs 130 workers in Ravena, the parent company is based in Switzerland, worldwide annual profits are $27 billion, and cement pilings for two of the NYS approved off-shore Long Island wind power stations, will be built by Lafarge. Lafarge is the world’s largest cement company. Tina said Lafarge has paid $50 million in fines in Boston for violations and $5 million in fines to EPA for Ravena violations. Tina and Paul identified other law-breaking by Lafarge.

Tina said used tires can be retreaded, used in retaining walls, turned into mulch, shingles, mats, drain pipes, and cable protectors. Tina said we can reduce tire use by driving less, car-pooling, using public transportation, and walking. 

Paul said we can block Lafarge’s plans to burn tires. More than twenty organizations and governments have joined the growing regional Clean Air Coalition including the Towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland. 

During the discussion a woman said Lafarge could be burning tires now. Lou Ismay spoke about fine particulates. He said visible dust particles can be seen when sun lights up a room, and invisible smaller dust particles are also present. He said more than one-million dust particles can fit into one cubic centimeter. Many of the tiniest dust particles remain in human lungs, others remain airborne for a long time, and it is almost impossible to clean the air in a room or building.

I read from a letter to the editor County Executive McCoy had printed six years ago and said we can probably coax Mr. McCoy to assist us in our efforts because he very much desires to retain his pro-environmental reputation. In his April 10, 2014 Altamont Enterprise Earth Day letter to the editor, Mr. McCoy wrote: “Our success is not complete until we establish practices that will serve the public not just for today, but for years to come. My administration is continuing its work to make Albany County the greenest in the state…As an environmental leader, I am encouraged to see how the seeds of environmental awareness and activism have sprouted over the years, with each generation celebrating and taking action to protect our air, water, and land. It can only give us hope for the future.” 

Barbara Heinzen urged us to not demonize Lafarge or its workers. She recommends we ask Lafarge and its workers where is the proof that tire burning is not a polluting operation. They can not answer this question. 

Albany County Legislator Bill Reinhardt said that when winds blow from the south, air pollution blows up (north) the Hudson River valley and into the Albany County river-bordering municipalities. He urged listeners to contact county legislators who live in and represent those cities, towns, and villages and urge them to support the Clean Air Law.

Former county legislator Doug Bullock said this Lafarge tire burning proposal is motivated strictly by a desire to increase profits. Lafarge will get paid to take the tires from vendors, partly replacing the coal it must purchase.

Additional comments: While working successfully with Coeymans and Ravena residents from 2005-2007 to block the City of Albany from siting a large regional solid waste landfill in Coeymans (near Lafarge), I attended hearings and meetings concerning Lafarge’s proposal to burn almost five-million whole tires per year in its old cement factory. DEC issued a negative declaration in 2005, thus allowing Lafarge to avoid preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement for this project. Many of us were outraged at DEC. We insisted that an EIS was legally and morally required due to the enormity of the project and that Lafarge is directly across Route 9W from the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Middle and High Schools. DEC would not listen to reason then nor now. No EIS has ever been prepared for Lafarge’s massive tire burning project. 

Have Governor Cuomo and DEC lost their minds? DEC will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. What went wrong? DEC allows a dump to operate right next to a 1000 student pre-K to Grade 12 public school in Rensselaer, and will not block tire burning across a road from two schools in Ravena. I can’t believe I live in New York or the United States. We as a nation and a state used to be smarter than this. Does the health of children not matter? Could it be that the demands and profits of giant corporations trump public health?

Published in February/March 2020
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