Tens of thousands of old rubber tires at a derelict recycling plant on Crown land in Port Alberni, British Columbia, pose fire and environmental hazards, and the chief councilor of the Tseshaht First Nation wants the province to clean it up.
The 10-acre property is zoned for heavy industrial use by the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, and is located one mile from the Tseshaht’s main reserve lands. The facility closed down in the mid 1990s but the tire pile remains and is therefore a fire and environmental hazard, said Tseshaht chief councilor Hugh Braker in a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
“We estimate that there are tens of thousands of tires and possibly hundreds of thousands of tires. We don’t know for sure,” Braker said. “If our First Nation did this on provincial Crown land we’d be arrested, fined and thrown in jail.”
The tribe has raised the issue with the provincial Minister of Forests and Lands and demanded a cleanup. “But the province allows it, and thinks it can get away with it, and that’s not acceptable,” Braker said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Forests and Lands confirmed they'd discussed the matter with the tribe. But he disputed that the property is a hazard. The government has tested soil on the property over the last five years, he said, and found no evidence of groundwater contamination.
At the site, access is uninhibited, except for stacks of industrial-size tires crowding each side of the entrance. Masses of black tires are stacked eight to ten feet high amid the trees. And a spongy material made from shredded tires covers the ground, turning the land into a dead moonscape. Water culverts run like arteries throughout the facility. Brown fluid with a light multi-colored film on top can be seen flowing from one culvert.
“This threatens the entire community. The whole Valley should be concerned,” he said, adding that an event like a fire could pose serious hazards. “We’ve got a school, elders, families and disabled people who would have to be evacuated and some may not make it out in time.”
The tire dump isn’t covered by the Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department, in whose jurisdiction it is located. Instead, being Crown land, it relies on protection from the provincial fire service, which does not have a unit stationed in Port Alberni. A forest fire could easily ignite the site, Port Alberni Fire Chief Tim Pley said, one that would burn hot and long, given tires’ petroleum composition.
“Tire fires are very dangerous and very difficult to extinguish,” Pley said. “You basically need a machine to tear the piles apart and then fight it.”
Smoke from a tire fire would be toxic. And on an inversion day, tire-fire smoke would be trapped in the Alberni Valley by an overarching layer of hot air. “At the very least there would be dioxins in it,” he added.
According to the original lease obtained by Indian Country Today Media Network, the property was leased to Future Generations Products Ltd., then later to Target Recycling Inc. Officials from those companies did not return requests for comment.
A Ministry of Lands and Forests spokesperson said the facility was created in the 1990s. The property is the responsibility of the Ministry of Forest and Lands but cleanup was the responsibility of the former leaseholder, the spokesperson said.
Ministry officials tried to contact the former owner in 1999 when the business closed and nothing was cleaned up, said the spokesperson. The owner forfeited his $5,000 security deposit, which “was far from sufficient to cover the cleanup costs,” the spokesperson said. “Now that the leaseholder has abandoned that responsibility, cleanup and removal of abandoned debris is at the discretion of the ministry.”
The province is in no hurry to remediate the site given the lack of immediate environmental threat. “The cost of cleanup of the four hectare site would far exceed the current value of the land,” the spokesperson told ICTMN.
“The province touted it as an eco-friendly industry,” Braker said. “And they leased that land to the company long enough that they should have attended to this by now.”
The Tseshaht has discussed the tire dump property with the ministry before but in another context, the spokesperson said. The tribe approached officials in 2011 about using the land for economic development reasons but never followed up, the spokesperson said.
The Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District has been aware of the tire dump issue for more than 10 years regional district chair Glenn Wong said. The ACRD even turned down an offer to purchase the site from the provincial government, saying that the purchase would have been onerous.
“We don’t feel our taxpayers should be burdened with the cost of cleaning it up, and we will not pay for it,” said Wong.
The ACRD did its own study into how much cleanup would cost. “The tires would have to be removed and there would have to be soil remediation as well. We estimate it would be in the millions.” Wong said, adding that the ACRD never brought any tires there from its equipment.
Meanwhile, the Tseshaht will reluctantly meet with lawyers to discuss their options. “But that’s not what we want. We just want this to be cleaned up,” Braker said.