A new industry that recycles old tires into fuel, saving companies millions of dollars and reducing a billion-tire national stockpile, is in limbo after a U.S. appeals court tossed out some federal clean-air rules.
In the past decade, owners of industrial boilers considered themselves do-gooders because they had the Environmental Protection Agency’s blessing to burn alternative fuels, including old tires. Yet environmental groups said the practice dodged clean-air requirements by classifying incinerators as boilers, which have less stringent emission rules.
On June 8, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed, heading off a new EPA rule that was to go into effect last week and forcing the agency to come up with a new definition of "solid waste."
"Tires will become a pariah if they are classified as a solid waste," said Michael Blumenthal, senior technical director for the Rubber Manufacturers Association in the District, which represents major tire manufacturers. He said the impact of the ruling would be "monumental."
Michael Sorcher, president of M.A. Associates, a marketer of tire-derived fuel based in Overland Park, Kan., said the new industry has been thriving. It saves more than $100 million a year for such customers as International Paper of Memphis, and Holcim of Jona, Switzerland, the world’s second-largest cement maker, he said.
"This regulatory change doesn’t just affect end users but the whole industry structure," Sorcher said, referring to makers of crumb rubber and other forms of recycled tire rubber. "It would be devastating for the industry in general."
The court said facilities burning tires, wood, bark and other industrial wastes had been improperly classified by the EPA. The agency allowed facilities that "recovered energy" to be designated as boilers instead of following language in the Clean Air Act designating units that burn any solid waste as incinerators.
"Had Congress intended to exempt all units that combust waste for the purpose of recovering thermal energy, it could likewise have expressly provided for their exemption in the statute," the ruling said.
Robert Wayland, leader of the EPA’s Energy Strategies Group in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, said the agency wanted to encourage the use of alternative energy sources, including tire-derived fuel. "We thought we had the purview to include these," Wayland said.
Cement kilns are the biggest users of tire-derived fuel, burning as many as 60 million tires a year, said Michel Benoit, executive director for the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition in the District.
The last thing his members want, Benoit said, "is another rule and charting into some unknown territory" that would make replacing coal with tires uneconomical.
"Nobody has been ruled in or out at this point," said the EPA’s Wayland, adding it will take at least two years to propose and complete a new rule that defines fuel and waste.
Jockeying over the new proposal has already begun. The Rubber Manufacturers Association told the EPA on June 25 that it should modify any new rules to exempt tires from its definition of solid waste.
The growth of markets for tire-derived fuel was nurtured by the EPA in the past 20 years to solve another environmental problem -- the billion-tire stockpile was a fire and disease risk.
Environmentalists were unsympathetic to the plight of tire recyclers and their customers.
"If they burn tires, they have to meet emission standards," said James Pew, staff attorney with Earthjustice, a District environmental law firm that argued the case with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit group. "It’s not our goal to crack down on them, just to get a better environmental result."
The biggest users of tire-derived fuel said they will have to calculate the energy savings against the higher costs of being reclassified as an incinerator.
"If it’s 10 percent of the fuel they use and it’s millions of dollars for more controls, mills will say it’s just easier to switch fuels," said Timothy Hunt, senior director for air-quality programs at the District-based American Forest and Paper Association, which represents pulp, paper and wood mills that use biomass and tires as fuel. "Every paper mill will face that decision."
He said that though states may step in with interim controls, facilities don’t have a rule to comply with until the EPA comes up with a new standard.
Whatever the outcome, at least one company thinks the decision will encourage a different form of recycling tires: freezing and then pulverizing them into powder that can be use in paint, tile, decking, automotive parts -- and new tires.
Lehigh Technologies, a private company in Naples, Fla., uses about 7 million tires annually. One official there says the growth potential for its process is immense and doesn’t have environmental consequences.
"We’re interested in converting the rubber into more beneficial uses," said Patrick George, Lehigh’s chief financial officer. "We’re just trying to figure out how this affects our business."