Tire-to-energy plant a hot issue in Erie

ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA - Greg Rubino wants to build the biggest tire-burning plant in the world just a medium-deep fly ball from home plate of a boys and girls club softball field in a working-class East Side neighborhood.

Mr. Rubino is trying to sell the tire-to-energy facility as an environmentally based, economic development project that each day would use between 72,000 and 100,000 discarded tires - a "virtual renewable source of fuel." It would produce 90 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 65,000 homes; its ash would be sent to a concrete-block manufacturer; and it would create 60 jobs.

"There's 330 million waste tires in the United States, and we need 10 percent of them. We can get those from just a couple-of-hundred-mile radius, delivered primarily by rail," said Mr. Rubino, a former car salesman who also was a real estate broker for Presque Isle Downs race track and casino in Erie. In 2006, he formed Erie Renewable Energy to develop the facility with Conservation Development Associates LLC of Erie and Boston-based Caletta Renewable Energy LLC.

"I'm proud of what I'm trying to do," he said last week, insisting that the facility won't burn or incinerate tires but rather would "combust tire-derived fuel, " another name for pulverized or chipped tires.

"Natural gas prices are up 33 percent and electric rates are going up soon. We need more energy, development and jobs."

But in the 18 months since Mr. Rubino proposed building the project on an overgrown log-storage lot along East Lake Road that International Paper closed in 2000, criticism has climbed as fast as its price tag, which has ballooned from $85 million to $350 million.

Opponents say the location, just 500 yards from the Lake Erie shore and much closer than that to an elementary school, a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood, two public-housing projects, dozens of small businesses and the Dr. George J. D'Angelo Boys & Girls Club of Erie, is a bad place to build the facility.

The plant includes a "fluidized bed" combustion system, twin 150-foot-tall boilers, electric power generators, a 300-foot smokestack and inside storage space for hundreds of thousands of shredded tires. It would draw 1 million gallons of water a day from Lake Erie, most of which would be used in steam generation for its turbines, and produce 117 tons of ash a day.

"There are 33-34 businesses in an area within a mile of the site that together employ more than 1,000 and are opposed to the tire burning proposal," said Randy Barnes, president of Keep Erie's Environment Protected, a citizens group formed to oppose the project. "They're concerned about pollution and concerned about its effect on their employees and the area."

Mr. Barnes said the tire facility's air-pollution projections are not a good fit for a city that has successfully cleaned up Presque Isle Bay after a decades-long struggle, and where a commitment to tourism is evident in a lakefront redevelopment project that includes a $100 million convention center-hotel complex.

Bruce Kern II, president of C.A. Curtze Co., a wholesale food distributor with 310 employees at two locations within a block of the plant site, said he might move the 130-year-old company out of the city where it was founded if the tire-burning facility is built there.

"It would be a major polluter,'' said Mr. Kern, who has made his concerns known to the Erie City Council. "The developer talks about using 'best available technology' to control the pollution, but the process is new. There's no plant like it in the world, and with a brand new process, accidents can happen."

The only other tire-to-energy plant operating in the United States is the Exeter Energy Limited facility in Sterling, Conn., which burns more than 10 million tires a year, about a third of what the plant here would burn. It's in an industrial park 15 miles from the nearest residential neighborhood. Another tire-to-power plant exists in Japan, but in recent years, tire incinerators have been rejected in Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.

"If this is such a good idea, how come no place else is competing for this?" Mr. Barnes said. "This stretches the definition of a renewable resource. There are better way to recycle tires."

About 300 million tires are scrapped in the U.S. each year, with about half of them used as fuel, often mixed with coal.

According to its air pollution permit application to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the facility would be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation that each year would emit 354 tons of nitrous oxide, 690 tons of carbon monoxide, 179 tons of sulfur dioxide, three pounds of mercury, and almost two dozen other chemical compounds.

It would also emit 235 tons of soot a year, significantly more than the 159 tons from the 10 top industrial, hospital and municipal soot emitters operating in Erie County in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available.

There are five public schools within a one-mile radius of the proposed facility, including Edison Elementary, just 300 yards from the property.

The school board has discussed the proposal, said Robin Smith, board secretary, and wants to hold a hearing and determine whether the plant posed "any adverse health and safety concerns."

"Officially, we have no position right now but we're doing fact-finding on the health effects," Ms. Smith said, adding that Mr. Rubino is holding a "seminar" for board members Aug. 21.

Mr. Rubino said the tire-to-energy facility would fully comply with state and federal emissions limits. He said opponents' claims that the plant would create a health hazard are "hogwash'' and scare tactics.

"All industries have emissions," he said. "The question is, are they injurious to human health? If ours were, we wouldn't get a permit. We are well below all of those thresholds."

But the Erie County Medical Society isn't convinced that simply meeting the state pollution standards would protect residents' health.

In a letter to Erie City Council last month citing the project proposal's estimated emissions, the county's already poor air quality due to soot emissions and its high lung cancer rate, the medical society called for an independent health assessment of the project.

"We're not taking a position on the tire plant until an assessment is done and its results are known," said Dr. Nancy Weissbach, medical society president. "But we do feel very strongly that such a study needs to be done."

The DEP, which originally said it would make a decision on the air pollution permit this summer, has suspended its review and requested additional air-quality information from the developer.

"Our air-pollution section in Harrisburg noticed during its review of the permit that the applicant failed to take into account Lake Erie when modeling its emissions patterns," said DEP spokeswoman Freda Tarbell. "Large bodies of water can influence air currents, so we're awaiting information from the applicant on the impact of the lake."

Mr. Rubino must also apply for a state waste permit to cover the tire-chipping operation and the ash it would produce.

The project also has run afoul of Erie's zoning rules, which place a 100-foot height limit on development along the lake shore. In a reversal of an earlier decision by a zoning officer, the zoning board voted in late July to disallow construction of the twin 150-foot boilers.

Bobbi Dzuricky, whose wood frame home on shady East Sixth Street is just half a block from the proposed project, said it would ruin the neighborhood, which, because of its racial and ethnic diversity, has been declared an "environmental justice" area by the state.

"If this project was on the West Side of the city or in Downtown Pittsburgh, it wouldn't fly," said Mrs. Dzuricky, whose front yard, like those of many of her neighbors, has a red and white, block-lettered "STOP THE TIRE PLANT" sign planted in the middle of it. There are also lots of "For Sale" signs in the neighborhood.

"Older neighbors I know are feeling like they're being forced out by this and are not going to get what their house is worth," she said. "I've lived here and paid taxes for 30 years. I understand he [Mr. Rubino] has the right to make money on his property, but he has to be smarter about how to do it."

Al Messina, executive director of the Dr. George J. D'Angelo Boys & Girls Club of Erie, said the club's board is taking no position, terming it a "political issue."


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