Treading lightly: Used-tire service back in business in Tilton

TILTON — A little more than four months after a fire destroyed a used-tire recycling facility in Hoopeston, the owners are back in business, leasing part of a building at the former General Motors foundry in Tilton.

On Oct. 3, Rodney and Janie Rogers of J&R Used Tire Service Inc. began operating in a 12,000-square-foot area of a 125,000-square-foot former GM building at 585 N. J St. in Tilton. They are leasing the site from Agracel, an Effingham company that owns the former GM site.

"But we are in and out," Rogers said, referring to the about 10,000 tires a day his business collects from about 1,000 clients in Illinois and Indiana, including truck stops like Petro.

Walking through the facility Monday morning, Rogers emphasized that the business is bringing tires in and shipping them out rather than stockpiling them or pieces of tires like it had in Hoopeston. Rogers said this operation is different than the one in the 400,000-square-foot facility at 103 Maple St. in Hoopeston that caught fire around 5 a.m. June 19 when a spark from machinery operated by workers inside the facility ignited tire dust and eventually spread to tires. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials estimated the facility had on site the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of tires.

More than 20 area fire departments and more than 100 firefighters fought the blaze at the former manufacturing site in a residential area of Hoopeston. Several blocks of residences had to be evacuated because of the smoke.

"It was just devastating," said Rogers, who added that he and his wife had only liability insurance on the building and were days away from selling the business to a New York investment group. He said he and his wife obviously did not want that fire to happen and apologize to the city of Hoopeston and its residents and thank the many volunteers and others who supported them.

Soon after the fire, the Illinois Attorney General's Office filed a complaint in Vermilion County Circuit Court asking it to stop the business from accepting any more tires or tire material or operating its facility on Maple Street until it developed, implemented and completed a site-remediation plan, which the business did, hiring a private contractor to clean up the site under the monitoring of the IEPA and a private firm hired by the IEPA.

Scott Mulford with the Illinois attorney general's office said the July legal order restricted J&R from accepting tires or tire material at the former Hoopeston site, but did not restrict any other legal activity by the business. He added that the business has not violated the order and should have no problems restarting its operation. Mulford said the IEPA has notified the attorney general that the business is properly registered and paid the required fee.

The IEPA's Andrew Mason said the agency has been keeping a close eye on the new operation and working with the owner to ensure safety. He said the Tilton operation will be inspected monthly for the foreseeable future, and the last inspection Oct. 24 did not reveal any compliance issues. The owner has also submitted contingency plans to the IEPA and local emergency response officials.

Most of the 12,000 square feet J&R is leasing in Tilton was vacant Monday morning except for a truckload of tires that were brought in that day and were being processed by two employees, who were separating the walls from the treads.

The flat, doughnut-shaped walls of the tires are bound in small bunches and sold to be used as the rubber bases of orange-and-white construction barrels. Rogers said they're processing about 2,300 of those a day. Other employees haul the treads outside to a shredder that cuts the tires in pieces and dumps them into a waiting semitrailer truck. Those pieces are sold for daily coverage at landfills and as a fuel source. They also collect tire tubes that are shipped out on a regular basis to other facilities that melt them down and reuse the rubber.

Initially, Rogers said, he and his wife were ready to quit. He said an Indianapolis company was helping to serve their clients after the fire, because the stream of used tires did not let up. But the Indianapolis company couldn't serve all of them, so the Rogers decided to start again.

He said neither Rantoul nor Paxton was interested in their business restarting there, but Tilton welcomed them, and they're employing about 20 people and serving about 95 percent of their previous customers.

Rogers said most of the cleanup in Hoopeston, which took several weeks, was paid for with the steel salvaged from the site, and he and his wife paid for the rest on their own. The 10-acre site is now cleared — a flat, vacant area with nothing left but the concrete pad that IEPA officials said luckily acted as a barrier, keeping the contaminated runoff from leaching underground.

Rogers said Hoopeston declined his and his wife's offer to donate the site to the city. He said they have plans to develop it, possibly converting part into rented storage buildings. Rogers said they did the best they could with the cleanup, executing it as quickly as possible.

Rogers said they are planning to build a new facility in Tilton, possibly on property they hope to buy from Agracel. He said they would like to have the new facility complete and operating by spring.

They also plan to again produce several tons of mulch a day, he said, but will use a different process that rubs pieces off whole tires rather than grinding them. He said they now have the emergency plan that was designed by a private company and submitted to the IEPA, and they will also have a financial-assurance policy in place that would fund any future cleanup.

Rogers said it won't be necessary.

"We learned a valuable lesson," he said, adding that they won't be stockpiling product like they did in Hoopeston, and no shreds will "hit the ground." Instead, they go into a container and right out the door, he said.

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