Chicago Tribune

December 12, 2005


By Lisa Fleisher

An unpopular tire incinerator is scheduled to reopen Jan. 1 in Ford
Heights, worrying some residents who fear their children's health will
worsen and the plant again will fail to meet environmental standards.

The new owners say the plant, one of only two such facilities
operating in the country, will convert about 6 million tires a year
into energy. Geneva 7 Energy bought the incinerator out of bankruptcy
in March and received a permit Oct. 20 from the Illinois Environmental
Protection Agency.

The incinerator, idle since early 2004, received permission to restart
in a year when Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made a public effort to shut
down the state's remaining medical-waste incinerators, citing concerns
about the cancer-causing dioxins they emit.

The Illinois EPA says the two types of incinerators should not be
compared, but environmentalists said Blagojevich is backing away from
his promise to limit air pollution.

"His administration is busy permitting a giant tire incinerator that
collectively dwarfs the pollution from these hospital incinerators ...
at a time when we need to be reducing air pollution and protecting
public health, and reducing the number of asthma attacks and
associated health problems," said Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club's
Midwest representative.

Geneva 7's permit allows annual emissions of almost 400 tons of
pollutants that have been linked to asthma attacks, lung disease,
heart problems and premature death.

Proponents say burning tires is cleaner than burning coal and saves
tires from entering landfills or sitting in illegal stockpiles, which
create fire hazards and breeding grounds for disease-carrying

"They burn hot, and they really burn cleaner than some other
products," Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. "We have to do
something with them."

The plant's critics agree something needs to be done with the nearly
13 million waste tires Illinois produces annually. But they say
incineration is becoming obsolete, overtaken by more environmentally
sound scrap-tire markets. Shredded tire is used in asphalt, road
repair, landfills, playground and sports surfacing, septic tanks,
sound control and erosion prevention.

In addition, critics say they are worried about potential fires, loose
permit standards and lack of government oversight.

The previous owners, New Heights Power and Recovery, had so many
problems that the Illinois EPA made unannounced inspections several
times a month--though inspectors were required to visit only once
every two years, said Brad Frost of the EPA's community relations
office. He could not say how often the site will be inspected next
year but insisted there will be strict oversight.

The plant, opened by Chewton Glen Inc. in November 1995, was one of
only a few facilities built among nearly 30 incinerator projects
proposed in the early 1990s. Businesses hoped to take advantage of a
1987 state law that essentially subsidized the industry. But the law
was repealed in March 1996, and after losing an argument that the
previously constructed plant should have been grandfathered in,
Chewton Glen went bankrupt and defaulted on nearly $80 million in
state bonds.

New Heights took over and flourished during the Bridgestone/Firestone
recall in 2000, but the company filed for bankruptcy after the
incinerator's high-pressure turbine blew up in early 2004, shutting
down the operation.

Geneva 7, a new company started by Chicago investment banker Ben Rose
and a former Iowa state energy regulator, Emmit George, bought the
facility from New Heights.

The plant initially will burn shredded tires, but it will switch to
whole tires by April, George said. Ideally, it will operate round-the-
clock all year, save for two weeks each fall and spring for
maintenance, he said. Whole tires will be stored in enclosed 53-foot
trailers, and some will be shredded on site, he said.

George said the facility will run more cleanly because of a new
digital pollution monitor and a new vacuum to clean up excess ash.

"We certainly expect to run the plant differently than it was run
before," George said.

About five of the estimated 35 employees now at the plant are current
or former Ford Heights residents, he said.

About 75 percent of the energy will be sold to Wisconsin Public
Service Co., said a spokesman for the utility. The rest will be sold
into the grid at market price, Rose said. Neither would disclose
further details of the contract.

Keith Harley, a lawyer representing the group South Suburban Citizens
Opposed to Polluting the Environment, said the EPA should not have
granted a permit to a polluter in an extremely poor and predominantly
minority area. Ford Heights, the poorest community in Cook County and
one of the poorest in the nation, is about 95 percent black, according
to 2000 census data.

Next to the plant sits the Ford Heights Head Start program, serving
more than 100 children. About 10 percent of the children, most of whom
are ages 3 to 5, have asthma, director Melva Smith-Weaver estimated.

When the plant was open before, children would more frequently miss
school with asthma problems, Smith-Weaver said. Sitting at her desk
after a reporter told her the plant would reopen, she seemed resigned
to a new pile of worries, from the effectiveness of pollution controls
to the parents' awareness level.

"I'm not even sure they know [the plant's] there," she said.

But some Ford Heights residents who attended the meeting said they
welcomed the reopening of the incinerator, saying it would provide
much-needed revenue for the town.

Many said they saw the hearing as an exercise in futility.

"Every discretionary call that [the Illinois EPA] made was in the
favor of the permit applicant and against the community," Harley said.
"There is nothing at least in the permit itself that suggests there
will be anything different about this facility."

Community members blasted what they saw as lax permit standards,
pointing specifically to a change to the automatic cutoff
requirements. The old permit required automatic shutoff when pollution
limits were broken on a 15-minute average, while the new permit allows
a 60-minute average. To the community, that signaled the plant would
be able to run for longer at unacceptable levels.

The EPA, however, said lengthening the average time would reduce
emissions, preventing the plant from unnecessarily shutting down when
the problem was easily fixed. Emissions are highest when the
incinerator is shutting down or starting up.

The EPA hasn't eased concerns in Ford Heights or surrounding towns.

"This just breaks my heart," said Katherine Kamp, a local advocate as
she sat in a car outside the Head Start program. "It's upsetting.
They're children, and they deserve better. They deserve to breathe air
that's not going to harm them."

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune