ATLANTA, Texas -- More than 30 million tires are piled up amid the pine forests of northeastern Texas. And state environmental officials are worried.
The decaying rubber once intended for recycling now is stacked in mounds up to 25 feet high, posing an extreme fire hazard, officials say.
"If that site turns into a blaze, it's a major disaster," said Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. "It is the largest tire pile in the state of Texas and maybe the largest in the nation."
The commission took over the 150-acre site near the Louisiana state line after it was abandoned two years ago by engineer Bud Gibson, who filed for bankruptcy after his recycling business failed.
Fearing lightning or oxidation of the wires in the tires might start a fire, state officials earlier this year prepared to bury the whole lot. But the idea was opposed by business leaders in Atlanta, a town of 5,700 people five miles from the dump.
The residents are worried the rubber still could catch fire underground, contaminating groundwater.
"We don't want it buried," said Rebecca Clayton, a cosmetologist and Chamber of Commerce board member who organized the opposition. "We feel like that would be trading one hazard for another -- a hidden one."
Saitas said that burial is widely considered safe. Tire chips mixed equally with dirt are not likely to catch fire, he said.
More dangerous, he said, is the threat of an aboveground blaze that could take months or even years to extinguish, releasing dangerous chemicals from the melting tires into lakes and streams.
Security guards monitor the site around the clock, watching for the blue haze that may signal fire under the rubber. Thermal imaging equipment is used to measure the heat building in the piles.
Gibson opened the recycling site in 1991 at a former strip mine, encouraged by a state program, financed by a $2 fee on new tires, that offered financial incentives to clean up tire dumps. But only a limited market for chipped or shredded tires developed.
Most of the tires have been shredded, but about 3 million whole ones remain.
Since the state took over, nine small fires have broken out and were extinguished only by breaking open the piles and dousing them.
Several volunteer fire departments surrounding Atlanta have said they will not respond to any more blazes because fighting the fires damaged their equipment and put firefighters in jeopardy.