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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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. …