Citing fire and environmental concerns, a local chief is calling on the provincial government to clean up an abandoned recycling plant outside Port Alberni where tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of rubber tires have been dumped over the past two decades.
The four-hectare swath of Crown land, zoned heavy industrial by the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, is located behind the Alberni landfill, three kilometres from the Tseshaht’s main reserve lands.
Hugh Braker, Tseshaht’s chief councillor, said the facility ceased operations sometime in the mid 1990s and is now a fire and environmental hazard.
“If our First Nation did this on provincial Crown land we’d be arrested, fined and thrown in jail,” said Braker, who has written the Minister of Forests and Lands to discuss a cleanup. “But the province allows it, and thinks it can get away with it, and that’s not acceptable.”
However, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests and Lands disputes Braker’s concerns, saying testing done within the last five years found no evidence of groundwater contamination from this site.
Access to the site is uninhibited, except for stacks of industrial-size tires that line each side of the entrance. Inside the facility, masses of black tires are stacked eight to ten feet high amidst trees and new vegetation. And a spongy material made from shredded tires covers the ground over the entire area giving the land the appearance of a dead moonscape.
Throughout the facility, culverts run like arteries. Flowing from one culvert, observed the News recently, was a brown fluid with a light multi-coloured film on top.
According to an official at the regional district, the facility was formerly leased to Future Generations Products Ltd. Other information obtained by the News show that it was also leased to Target Recycling Inc. The News was unable to contact officials from either company by publication.
“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.
He said water from the site flows into creeks and makes its way into the Alberni harbour and Shoemaker Bay, where the Tseshaht, Hupacasath and commercial operators fish. “This threatens the entire community. The whole Valley should be concerned,” Braker said, adding reserve lands are also too close for comfort in the event of a fire.
“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,” he said.
Complicating the matter is that the area isn’t covered by Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department, and instead would rely on protection from the provincial fire service, who would take time to get there, Braker said.
Port Alberni Fire Chief Tim Pley said a match couldn’t start a tire fire, but a forest fire could, adding tires are composed of solid petroleum and therefore burn both hot and long.
“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 such a fire would be toxic and on an inversion day would likely envelop the Valley, Pley said. “At the very least there would be dioxins in it,” he added.
A Ministry of Lands and Forests spokesperson said the government of the day allowed the facility to be created sometime in the 1990s but couldn’t determine a specific date. The property is the responsibility of the Ministry of Forest and Lands but cleanup was the responsibility of former lease holder, the spokesperson said.
Ministry officials tried unsuccessfully to contact the former owner in 1999 when the business closed and there was no cleanup, said the spokesperson. Subsequently, the owner forfeited his security deposit, which “was far from sufficient to cover the cleanup costs,” the spokesperson said.
“Now that the lease holder has abandoned that responsibility, cleanup and removal of abandoned debris is at the discretion of the ministry,” the spokesperson said.
The province hasn’t initiated cleaned up of the site since it closed because “the cost of cleanup of the four hectare site would far exceed the current value of the land,” the spokesperson said.The Ministry of Environment responds to pollution concerns “but the site poses no immediate environmental threat,” the spokesperson said.
This isn’t the first time the Tseshaht have discussed the tire dump property with the ministry. The tribe approached them in 2011 about using the land for economic development purposes but never followed up, the spokesperson said.
Glenn Wong, regional district chair, said board members have been aware of the issue for more than a decade and even turned down an offer to purchase the site from the provincial government for financial reasons.
“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 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 the ACRD never brought any tires there from its equipment to the facility.
Meantime, tribal officials say they are preparing to meet with their lawyers to determine their options. “But that’s not what we want. We just want this to be cleaned up,” Braker said.
“The province touted it as an eco-friendly industry. And they leased that land to the company long enough that they should have attended to this by now.”