By John Rossi
Litigation is before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board on the Department of Environmental Protection’s air quality plan for the proposed Crawford Renewable Energy tire-burning plant in Crawford County. The plant is a terrible deal for the Meadville area, as it will emit far more harmful pollutants than its promoters have projected.
The Crawford tire-burning plant (CRE) will be one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It is a precedent-setting facility in the amount of tires to be burned — 900 tons per day.
On the surface, the concept behind the plant appears to be an excellent use of trash to create treasure — burn scrap tires, which are expensive to dispose of, high in energy content and generate electricity.
The problem here is that tires are chemically complex products designed to be tough and durable so that motorists driving upon them get safely to their destinations. Those very same properties make them difficult to burn. Tire shreds of the size that the Crawford plant plans to burn may not burn evenly or completely. Partial combustion, in conjunction with the chemicals in tires, could produce comparatively high levels of airborne emission of some very dangerous chemical compounds.
One of the chemicals in tires is chlorine, a toxic chemical in its own right. Burning it with the other chemicals in tires can produce dioxins and furans. They are typically formed by incomplete combustion and enter the atmosphere through the plant’s smokestack. These chemical compounds are among the deadliest known to humanity.
Dioxins and furans are highly toxic and also could cause cancer and genetic mutation. Even worse, they break down very slowly in the environment. Dioxins and furans also attach themselves to fatty tissue in mammals and bio-accumulate in the food chain.
This means that when the Crawford plant burns, tires dioxins and furans will go out the smokestack and ultimately be deposited on plants that cows and people eat. These chemical compounds will then attach themselves to the fatty tissues in the cows and people, and they will increase in their bodies over time. And, when meat from these cows is eaten or the milk from these cows is drunk, people could get a concentrated dose of dioxins and furans.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a second major cancer- and mutation-causing byproduct of burning tires. These are caused by burning the “rubber” which typically makes up two-thirds of a tire. PAHs may be carried by small particulate matter up the furnace’s smokestacks and into the air.
When they come into contact with people, the PAHs may be absorbed through the skin and through inhalation. Once inside the body, they ultimately bind to DNA and proteins. There, they can form cancerous tumors as well as cause heritable damage to genes. The Center for Disease Control also reports that developmental and reproductive problems can occur from exposure to PAHs.
These are only a few of the toxic and carcinogenic pollutants that CRE’s burning of 900 tons of tires per day could release into the atmosphere.
The fact of the matter is that tires are not made to be burned, and they cannot be burned safely with existing technology. If they are burned at the projected CRE plant, the result could be more cases of birth defects, cancer and deaths in the people living downwind from the plant and in those consuming food and milk from the farms in the area. Simply put, if the plant goes up, there’s a chance more people in western Pennsylvania will be sick, injured or die.
The plant’s promoters underestimated emissions of these and other toxins and carcinogens in their original application to the Department of Environmental Protection. Sadly, the DEP accepted these estimates.
Because the Department of Environmental Protection’s air quality permit for the tire-burning plant underestimates the pollutants that plant could release, the Environmental Hearing Board should revoke the plan.
Rossi is the conservation chair of the Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club.