By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The well-worn house is perched on a small hill just off Tarkiln Road here in Smithfield, R.I. Several old cars, and rusting pieces of machinery are scattered under the winter trees sheathed in ice here on a freezing day.
Signs nailed on trees and fences around the house carry a clear message of warning: Stay off this land or else.
From inside the house, a wary William Davis and his family have waged a 25-year legal battle to protect what is behind the house: an estimated 20 to 30 million scrap tires on rural land covering some 14 acres. "Davis owns the largest scrap-tire dump in the Northeast and probably east of the Mississippi," says Matt DeStefano, project manager for Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management (DEM). A knock on Mr. Davis's door by this reporter brings a quick response from his son-in-law: "Get off our property." Old and crumbling, the tires are clumped in huge piles that breed mosquitoes in summer, collect water that freezes in winter, and add up to a 14-acre environmental "nightmare" according to many officials. Davis may have thought he could turn them into gold, or at least some money. "It's difficult to determine exactly how many tires are there," Mr. DeStefano says, after many visits to Davis's land, "because so many are piled in ravines, and you can't see the bottom." In places the piles are more than 25 feet high. Whatever the number, the massive site is emblematic of a continuing nationwide problem: How does a vehicle-loving nation dispose of the nearly 270 million scrap tires it generates each year? According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) - and despite reductions in many states - there are an estimated 800 million scrap tires in piles around the United States. (See story, below.) Officially, the Smithfield location is known as the Davis Landfill. To the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), part of it is also known as the Davis Liquid Waste Site, now a Superfund site where hundreds of drums of solvents, acids, pesticides, phenols, metals, and laboratory pharmaceuticals were dumped throughout the 1970s. Davis was paid to accept the waste and the tires beginning then, perhaps thinking that oil shortages at the time could lead to a hot market for scrap tires. A process known as pyrolysis can change part of a tire into oil. Hundreds of trucks rolled through Smithfield with tires that Davis accepted year after year for payment. "As with all of the tire-pile operators," says Steve Morin, assistant to the director of Rhode Island's DEM, "they thought this was a great way to make money. And a man of Davis's age remembers World War II, when used tires were a commodity. They think they are sitting on a gold mine." Davis also accepted junked cars and old machine parts. In addition to drums of chemical waste, he allowed tank trucks to dump wastes directly into lagoons and seepage pits, which contaminated the soil and groundwater in the area. In some instances he covered the waste with tires. All of this happened in years when environmental concerns were being argued in the US and slowly focused into legislation and new laws. Piling tires used to be a legitimate way to dispose of them. The Davis site is several miles outside of Smithfield, a middle-class town of 19,000. Roads to the property pass through residential areas, and according to the EPA, 240 people live within one mile of the site. Neighbors complaining about water quality and noisy trucks started Davis's many legal battles in the '70s. He has fought against nearly every court decree and lawsuit, and even won a few in the early years. But according to the Rhode Island Attorney General's office, he has defiantly torn up subpoenas, blocked entrance to his property, carried and fired guns to scare officials, allegedly tampered with government cleanup equipment on his land, shouted at women officials, and defied restraining orders. …