Tire-shredding plant back on track

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John Myers

Forum News Service

CLOQUET, Minn. — A proposed tire storage and shredding facility north of Cloquet is back on track, with a public comment period and public meeting set in the coming weeks before state regulators decide whether to issue a permit to the company.

Tire Aggregate LLC of Cloquet wants to build the facility on six acres in the Omar's Sand and Gravel pit along Minnesota Highway 33 in Brevator Township.

The facility could store and shred hundreds of thousands of tires annually, with some resold as used tires but most shredded at the site — up to 1,200 every hour — to make a construction fill product called tire-derived aggregate.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is deciding two issues at the same time — whether the environmental review was sufficient and whether to issue a waste tire handling permit for the project.

With neighbors complaining that the project could damage wetlands and a nearby trout stream, the company asked the state to conduct an environmental review called an environmental assessment worksheet.

That review has wrapped up and the PCA has issued a draft permit that would, if finalized, allow the project to proceed. The draft permit is up for public review through May 16 with a public meeting set for May 1.

Neighbors of the proposed project and at least one state lawmaker have expressed concern over potential tire fires, which are notoriously hard to put out. They also note that water running off the site could carry pollutants from the waste tires into a nearby trout stream or damage wetlands.

But the environmental assessment worksheet says those concern may be unfounded.

No flow to trout stream

The review found no natural wetlands on the site, only ponded water where gravel had been dug in past years. And it said toxic pollutants aren't likely to leach from the tires even when shredded.

“As long as the (tire-derived aggregate) is not stored in the groundwater or standing water, metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons will not leach from the material and not become mobile in the environment,” the PCA document notes.

The review said tests at the site found the water table at least eight feet below the surface where tires would be stored, and they noted the site already is disturbed — it’s an active gravel pit — and is well-shielded from neighbors and the public by trees and berms.

The review also found that there is no runoff from the site to the White Pine River, a designated trout stream about 650 feet east, across Highway 33. Surface water at the site flows the other way, the review concludes, about 3,600 feet to the St. Louis River.

“There is no surface hydrological connection to the White Pine River and there is likely no groundwater connection,” Charles Peterson, who is heading the review for the PCA, told the News Tribune. “We can’t say for certain that there is no groundwater connection (between the project and the river) without doing some extensive testing that’s beyond the scope of an EAW.”

Trucks would deliver old tires to the site from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, the PCA document notes. It would also be available for public tire drop-off on some days.

Northern tires would stay north

Nearly 300 million tires are discarded annually across the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency says. Minnesota alone generates about 8 million waste tires per year and state policy is to keep those tires out of ditches, streams and landfills.

Some of those Minnesota tires are shredded, and the pieces are burned in power plants to generate electricity. Others are shredded and used as fill for drainage projects around homes as well as for road base, septic systems and other projects where a lightweight fill is needed for road or building construction.

The Highway 33 facility would intercept many of the nearly 400,000 tires generated in the Northland each year that now are trucked to the Twin Cities area to be shredded, only to see much of that rubber trucked back north as aggregate.

It would be the fourth major tire-recycling facility in Minnesota making tire-derived aggregate, with the others in Savage, St. Martin and Isanti.

The PCA’s draft environmental assessment worksheet says there will be eight bins for tire storage, each four feet high and 70 feet long, but that most tires will be shredded soon after arriving to prevent water collecting in used tires that would allow mosquitoes to breed. The original plan called for up to 500,000 tires at the site at any one time. But David Chmielewski, the company’s president, has said far fewer tires would be at the site at any one time.

Permit could come soon

Chmielewski said the company wanted the environmental assessment “to codify our position, demonstrate our environmental solvency and further support the facility permit application. This is a very expensive and time-consuming process, which did not yield any new information that would indicate a risk of significant environmental harm.”

Chmielewski said he hopes to obtain permits quickly after the public comment period and environmental review concludes in May.

“We expect to be accepting material and processing waste tires immediately after the permit is issued,” he told the News Tribune.  “We are looking forward to our materials being used in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable manner, which is our mission. We have numerous projects lined up and ready to receive our product.”

Chmielewski has referred to numerous studies that show waste tires do not leach chemicals into waterways.

Bonnie Vanderpool, who lives near the proposed tire shredding facility, said the PCA has mischaracterized why the environmental review occurred, saying it was the result of public outcry, not a voluntary move by the company. Some nearby residents say they are worried about potential groundwater contamination of their wells.

"We are disappointed that the PCA has classified this as a voluntary environmental assessment worksheet by the proposer when it was in fact initiated by our extensive citizen petition with over 200 signatures,” she said, adding that there is no record of the public petition which indicates PCA officials “may not be aware of the valid arguments our community has raised with the project. We sincerely hope those agencies thoroughly investigate prior to making their determinations.”

Opponents could still ask for a contested case hearing on the permit approval phase of the PCA’s decision. A contested case hearing would bring an administrative law judge to review the facts in the case and hold additional public meetings.

The tire project received a special-use permit from the St. Louis County Planning Commission in 2014. Chmielewski applied for the state permit in December 2015. It also already has received a stormwater permit from the PCA.