STANISLAUS CONNECTIONS

Working For Peace, Justice, and A Sustainable Environment

Online Edition: April, 2000     Vol. XI, No. VIII

A Modesto Peace/Life Center Publication

Earth Day in the Park 2000
"Passport to the Future
Saturday, April 15, 11am-5pm
Graceada Park, Modesto


CONTENTS

Peace Community

Time for a New Understanding: First Place Division I (grades 11 and 12) Peace Essay Contest 2000
Peace In Our World: First Place Division III (grades 7 and 8) Peace Essay Contest 2000
A Day of Respect changes minds at Beyer High School
Celebrate the Children of Resistance
Last of the big time spenders: U.S. military budget still the world’s largest, and growing.
Sign the treaty to ban landmines

Debt Relief Plan is falling behind, warns World Bank
Why more gun control?
What we know, what we say: about B yard at Pelican Bay
Full prisons make unemployment data look rosier
Dr. Laura: radio’s leading anti-gay zealot/ Norman Solomon

Our Chernobyl – the Westley tire fire
Final analysis: the Westley tire fire revisited

Out and About

Seminar will cover cancer risk factors
Womens’ Auxiliary to be honored at tea

Living Lightly:

mudpiest.jpg (3553 bytes)Mud Pies and Purple Onions

crosswalkst.gif (2319 bytes) Crosswalks, Fareboxes & Handlebars

Earth Day 2000: recycling results mixed
Modesto Farmers Market Opens April 15th
Tuolumne River Friends making progress
Do you want a park or a festival grounds in Tuolumne River Regional Park?
Poem: Two-Hearted Oak
Spring has sprung! (Modesto Garden Project)
The health advantages of a vegetarian diet

Living Lightly Links

DIALOGUE: LETTERS

CALENDAR --CURRENT & COMING EVENTS

Masthead and Back Issues

Please Post: People United Against Hate posters available

Wear your convictions on your window. Say "No" to Hate Crime posters come in two sizes for your home and work (or play) place. The local chapter of NAACP has produced the multi-colored poster which read: Say "No" to Hate Crime/PEOPLE UNITED AGAINST HATE/"Not In Our Town."

The posters are free.

Please post — lots!

ACTION: Posters are available at the Peace/Life Center, 722 -13th Street or by calling the NAACP at 549-1991.

Debt Relief Plan is falling behind, warns World Bank

The West’s program of debt relief for the world’s poorest countries is in danger of slipping behind schedule; writes The Guardian Weekly's Charlotte Denny in Bangkok.

Leaders from the world’s seven leading industrial nations (G7) pledged last autumn to deliver debt relief to 11 countries by Easter, but the President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, admitted last week that they were unlikely to reach that target. He said that just eight would be through by Easter and warned that the total for the year could be a lot lower than the G7 had hoped.

Mr. Wolfensohn insisted that the hold-up in debt forgiveness was "delay for delay’s sake". To qualify poor countries must show they will spend the savings from debt relief on programs to relieve poverty, but the process is proving time-consuming for the Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IFM), and for the countries themselves.

Clare Short, Britain’s international development secretary, warned that some poor countries were in danger of being bogged down by the paperwork required. "What is happening in Washington is that there’s delay looking for the perfect poverty reduction strategy," she said. "if you ask for perfection, you’ll be waiting for decades."

Britain has argued that countries should not be required to spell out to the last letter how they will spend the money before they get the first installment of debt relief. Other G7 countries, however, are insisting on seeing detailed plans.

Mr. Wolfensohn said that the bank was under considerable pressure from creditor countries to speed up the process. "We have people working day and night on this," he said. But many poor countries lack even basic information about existing education and health programs. In a lot of these countries they don’t even have the statistics.".

Source: The Guardian Weekly, Feb. 24, 2000, page 16.

--Submitted by Kathy Shaw.

Why more gun control?

In one year firearms killed
0 children in Japan
19 children in Great Britain
57 children in Germany
109 children in France
l53 children in Canada
and 5,285 children in the United States

What more can we do?
o Require the licensing of every handgun owner.
o Require the registration of every handgun.
o Ban importation of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
o Require safety locks to be sold with all guns.
o Prohibit the sale or transfer of assault rifles to children under the age of 18
o Close the gun show loopholes
Let us pass reasonable gun control laws regarding licensing and registration!

ACTION: Write your congress members today. Only public outcry will show them that a majority of the public wants gun control. Statistics show that a majority does support it.

-Submitted by Phyllis Harvey

What we know, what we say: about B yard at Pelican Bay

By LESLIE DIBENEDETTO

California Prison Focus

On Wednesday, February 23, 2000, a melee broke out on general population B yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. The B facility is one of two 1,200 cell level IV maximum-security units next to the notorious Security Housing Unit (SHU).

A fight between rival groups erupted and mostly African American prisoners were attacked by Latino prisoners, according to California Dept. of Corrections CDoC and independent reports. When all was said and done 24 assault-rifle shots were fired by corrections staff, injuring 15 prisoners and killing one. From the information we have, it seems shots were fired at a mass of prisoners within or emerging from the smoke of the tear gas, not at prisoners inflicting great injury or death on another (which is the only time lethal force is permitted).

Our analysis of the incident is as follows:

(1) A melee of this magnitude demonstrates a failure of penal management in insuring a safe environment for prisoners and staff.

(2) We criticize the necessity for and use of lethal force on prisoners. From reports, the majority of the prisoners sent to outside hospitals were shooting victims; few were prisoners injured by other prisoners. Though we do not condone prisoner violence, we question whether the injuries and potential injuries were enough to require the use of guns. If less lethal techniques continued to be employed the incident would probably have been quelled. In addition, on-the-ground officer intervention was absent though 80-100 were present.

(3) The practice of placing prisoners with hostilities on the same yard together is a regular one. Fighting results. This is a historical phenomenon and is perpetuated by prison staff and officials. Ken Hurdle, CDoC "ombudsman", made this clear during negotiations with prisoners at New Folsom during a hunger strike (began in November 1999 on the anniversary of a one-year lockdown) when he responded to the prisoners’ demand to spend their yard time with a group they got along with by saying "[t]hen you’d have two groups normally aligned on the yard at the same time. They would only have staff as their enemy." [Quoted from the Sacramento Bee 12/8/99].

Additionally, prisoners regularly report to us the hostile state of all maximum-security general population yards (i.e. High Desert, Salinas Valley, New Folsom, Calipatria). If they are not on the yard in tense situations, they are locked down as a result of a fight.

(4) Setting up prisoners continues to occur. We believe if 89 weapons were indeed found on the yard after the incident that staff allowed this to occur. Why? Many reasons: payback, control, mismanagement, for fun. Hands-on searches and metal detectors are utilized when prisoners enter the yard. Placing known rivals on the same yard, "accidental" cell popping (when two cells are open at the same time), putting a prisoner in a cell with a known assaulter and setting up alleged sex offenders for attack are not uncommon. The word got out during the Pelican Bay trial (Madrid v. Gomez) in the early 1990s. Legal action and newspaper exposes a few years ago described the years of trouble and lethal guard gunfire at Corcoran. Recently, guards were convicted of setting up fights at Pelican Bay. But the problems persist.

One prisoner wrote us in January stating: "[t]he officially authorized, Corcoran-style gladiator fights are alive and well at Pelican Bay’s B facility mainline. After the largest racial riot in prison history (8/30/99) black and white prisoners have been segregated completely and constantly for months.... Now they are attempting to stage a full-blown riot by releasing all prisoners to the yard [at the same time]. The only thing preventing this is the fact that staff cannot release even one-third of one building before a melee breaks out. Many prisoners "have been stabbed, beaten, pepper sprayed and seriously injured". CPF has also heard reports of similar incidents on "A" yard from prisoners and their families.

Though we denounce the prison system as it currently exists, we suggest the following to improve conditions prisoners live under:

(1) Create an independent oversight committee with significant community and human rights representation that has the power to examine the overall management of the prison system, to investigate individual claims and has instant random access to all facilities.

(2) Create a conflict-resolution program between prisoners that includes desegregating so-called gang leaders. Instead of fanning the flames of rivalries (which would take a real overhaul of attitude and policy), work toward peace.

(3) Designate prisons that are "conflict free" where prisoners not in the mix can stay out of it rather than be forced in.

(4) Initiate meaningful programming that gives prisoners something constructive to do with their days.

(5) Provide adequate medical and mental health care.

(6) Train staff in conflict resolution and break down the "us v. them" mentality beginning at the academy.

(7) Change California’s draconian sentencing structure: a large number of prisoners on Pelican Bay’s mainline are doing long mandatory sentences with only 10-15% credit limits.

In all, CPF demands an independent investigation of this incident and the entire prison. We also call for the closing of Pelican Bay due to its consistent brutal and negligent treatment of prisoners.

California Prison Focus, 2940 16th Street #307, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415-252-9211; www.prisons.org

FULL PRISONS make unemployment data look rosier.

The strong economy has pushed U.S. joblessness to the lowest levels in three decades. But a grim factor is also helping improve the numbers: a record 1.7 million people are currently imprisoned in the U.S. Prisoners are excluded from employment calculations. And since most inmates are economically disadvantaged and unskilled, jailing so many people has effectively taken a big block of the nation’s least-employable citizens out of the equation.

The proportion of the population behind bars has doubled since 1985, note labor economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger. If the incarceration rate had held steady over that period, they suggest, the current 4.1 per cent unemployment rate would be a less-robust 4.3 per cent. And because minorities are jailed at a much higher rate, black unemployment — currently at a historically low 7.9 per cent — would likely be as high as 9.4 per cent, says Harvard’s Dr. Katz.

From: "WorkWeek" 2 Feb 2000, Wall Street Journal

Seminar will cover cancer risk factors

Dr. David T. Zava, breast cancer researcher and biochemist , will present a seminar on Steroid Hormones and Saliva Testing as a Window to Health, April 30 at 12:30 p.m. in the Arbor Room of the Modesto Centre Plaza.

Dr. Zava of Portland, Oregon, a colleague of Dr. John R. Lee, author of What Your Doctor May Not Have Told You About Menopause, will discuss how steroid hormones can be risk factors for breast and prostate cancer.

Women’s Hormonal Health, a clearing house for lay hormonal health counseling, is sponsoring the event and is targeting registered and licensed vocational nurses who can earn three California Educational Units (CEUs) from the course. It is hoped these nursing professionals will gain information which can be passed along to patients.

The 3 hour seminar is open to the public. Registration begins at 11:45 a.m. The fee is $15 with an optional $6 fee for credits. Tickets can be purchased at El Rancho Pharmacy in Manteca, Cornucopia Health Foods or Village Health Foods in Modesto, Turlock Health Foods or at the door.

Womens’ Auxiliary to be honored at tea

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will honor members of Modesto’s Women’s’ Auxiliary at its annual tea April 8 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on Martin Luther King Drive in Modesto.

The tea will recognize the auxiliary for its service to the community and its scholarships program. All area residents are invited. A $5 donation will be taken at the door.

For information call the NAACP at 549-1991.

Final analysis: the Westley tire fire revisited

By INDIRA CLARK

"Why is it taking so long for the final analysis of the burned tire residue?" asks attorney Solange Goncalves Altman.

"Our biggest fear is that the state is not releasing the final analysis because of how toxic it is, "says the Modesto attorney. "During the fire, (officials) had the analysis of the water runoff from the firefighting effort in just a matter of days."

"By delaying the analysis now, they may be waiting for the toxicity to dissipate and break down over time," she says, so it won't be as toxic. It has been five months since the tire fire at the Oxford Recycling plant near Westley in western Stanislaus County was put out. The tire incinerator is closed."

Used tire suppliers stopped supplying the tire incinerator after the fire because of liability issues, forcing the plant to close

Altman became involved litigation against the owners of the Westley tire pile and operators of the tire burning plant in 1987. As a staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, she represented a farmworker. Later, she represented the Grayson Neighborhood Council in a second lawsuit. Prior to and after the lawsuit she served as a boardmember of the Ecology Action Educational Institute which was also a party to the lawsuits

When lightening strikes ignited the Westley tire pile last September, the then state-of-the-art approach was to let the tire fire burn itself out, a process that was projected to take a year or more (see article on page one of this special section). A smaller tire pile in nearby Tracy has been burning since August of 1998 in a pit which, officials claim, would trap run-off water and contaminate groundwater if attempts were made to put it out.

After the Westley tire fire ignited, local resident, Karen Cox, organized a meeting of the community. Westside residents demanded the tire fire be put out immediately. Congressman Gary Condit responded. Largely, because of his efforts federal assistance was provided through a fund that puts out oil fires, and the tire fire was put out in four weeks.

Since the fire was extinguished, the Community Awareness and Action Committee - Westley Tire Fire, born after that first meeting, has continued to lobby for complete information and a complete clean-up of the site.

The oil that melted out of the burning tires at the Westley site ran into a holding pond. This burnt oil was hauled away to be recycled. The partially burned tires were shredded and dumped in, or on top of, landfills, says Altman.

"You can still smell the putrid burnt oil," says Karen Cox, Westley businesswoman and a leader of the citizen group.

Altman voices another concern: "The State might be tempted not to finish cleaning up. They may just go ahead and cap it off by putting a clay layer over the burned tire residue. State and county officials have indicated that the soil underneath the pile is not permeable and it's unlikely the groundwater has been or will be contaminated."

"The State has already spent $3.2 million dollars since the fire was officially out at the end of October to weatherize the site to prevent toxics from the burned tire residue from leeching into the soil and groundwater during the winter rains," according to Altman. "This is in addition to the $1.5 million that was spent fighting the fire."

"Oxford Recycling's insurance company has agreed to pay $875,000 of the one million dollar bond it posted toward the costs spent by the state so far. We taxpayers are paying the rest."

The health consequences of the fire will be around for a long time. Last fall, the Community Awareness and Action Committee printed up health questionnaires and left boxes of them in public places around the Westside for people to pick up. Over 600 were filled out and returned, documenting health problems.

A clinic with a Stanislaus County nurse was open and available to area residents into December.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by a group of Bay Area attorneys seeking compensation for the long term health effects of the tire fire.

State Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza has asked the State Attorney General's office to clarify whether the county had the authority to bring a civil nuisance action which might have stopped the massive accumulation of tires. Even if the county lacked the authority to bring a civil nuisance action as it claims, it issued the permits for the siting of the incinerator and could have banned the importation of new tires to the Westley site until the existing pile no longer presented a fire hazard. Had the county set such a restriction in the original permit and forced the plant to burn the 6 million tire maximum per year the tire fire could have been prevented.

Jurisdiction for enforcement of tire pile regulation in now with the State Integrated Waste Management Board which gets 22.5 cents from each tire sold in California. This is for the enforcement of regulations, developing alternatives to burning tires and creating markets for used tires.

Altman and others support the use shredded crumb rubber in surfacing roads, an idea CALTRANS has yet to embrace wholeheartedly. If Cal Trans used crumb rubber, it is estimated that 6 million of the state's 45 million tire waste stream could be utilized.

"Sacramento could mandate a gradual implementation, starting with ten per cent and increasing over time, just as it has been pushing cities to recycle," says Altman.

So if the tires are not being purchased for incineration at the tire burning plant, where are the tire haulers taking them?

They are being dumped illegally all over California. Altman points out that there are only four inspectors for the whole state.

Cox says she has been informed that the old asbestos pit near Copperopolis is being filled with whole tires. And that the State Integrated Waste Management Board is aware of this illegal dump in the foothills of eastern Stanislaus County.

"You would think they would have learned something from the Tracy tire fire about dumping tires into a pit," Cox says.

ACTION: Contact Community Awareness and Action Committee - Westley Tire Fire, P.O. Box 808, Westley California 95387; fax: 209-894-3146.

SPECIAL FEATURE: our Chernobyl - the Westley tire fire

CONNECTION's editors believe this outstanding article on the Westley Tire Fire is required reading for citizens of Stanislaus County. We gratefully thank the author and the East Bay Express for making it available.

From the East Bay Express, December 3, 1999. Reprinted with permission.

On the morning of September 22, a bolt of lightning struck a pile of seven million discarded tires on Ed Filbin's ranch near Westley, igniting an unprecedented environmental disaster that was forty years in the making - and is far from over.

By CHRIS THOMPSON

Just north of Westley, a small farming community and truck stop sixty miles southeast of Oakland, lies a vast ravine in the hills that rim the I-5 corridor, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Up until two months ago, as many as 7 million used tires filled this ravine. They rose three hundred feet in the air in mammoth clumps, almost entirely uninterrupted by fire breaks or access roads. For more than twenty years, neighbors in the surrounding tomato and apricot farms begged the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, state agencies, and the tire dump site's owner to do something. God help us all, they thought, if this great black mountain of poison and oil ever catches fire.

Ten minutes before four on the morning of September 22, it did. A freak lightning storm passed over the Bay Area that night, and a long string of ionized molecules lined up just right, allowing a bolt of electric power to streak down onto a metal loading ramp that had been placed atop the pile. Within hours, millions of tires were ablaze. The fire radiated waves of two-thousand-degree heat, enough to blow in windshields and cook toasters into soup; a column of greasy, obsidian smoke, the size of a small city, rose miles into the sky and blotted out the sun. It was a roiling, sulfurous, unctuous golem, beyond the control of those men who had set into motion the events that led to its appalling birth.

Take the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, add another three million gallons, then set it on fire, and you begin to appreciate the scale of the Westley inferno. Thousands of pounds of carcinogens, compounds linked to birth defects, and lung-clogging particulate matter were released into the atmosphere of a region which has recently been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as having air quality that is among the worst in the nation. Hundreds of people reported symptoms ranging from respiratory distress to vomiting, headaches, and spontaneous nosebleeds. Pregnant women and young mothers fled the area, as did the elderly, if they could. Schools canceled recesses and relocated football games, and anyone with respiratory conditions such as asthma were advised to stay indoors. Perhaps most at risk were the approximately 20,000 migrant farmworkers who were in the area to collect the year's almond harvest. Few of the health advisories were in Spanish, and even if they had heard of the danger, many of those folks were sleeping in tents or sleeping bags under the sky, with no indoors to which to retreat. For more than a month, they labored under the shadow of the fire's dark cloud.

Even more unsettling is what the fire could have done. The fire came close to interrupting power transmission lines that comprise the hub of the electricity grid for the western United States, and could have blacked out large sections of the Bay Area. The funnel of smoke lay in the approach path to the San Francisco International Airport, and planes almost had to be diverted lest they fly into the cloud. Residue from the fire threatened to contaminate the water supply for millions of people, as well as water used to irrigate local crops.

In the 34 days the tire pile burned, the disaster racked up millions of dollars in damage. The federal EPA, in conjunction with state and local authorities, spent an estimated $3 million putting out the conflagration. It will cost an additional $2.9 million to clean up the smoky, rubber mess left behind. County officials are just beginning to tally the costs incurred by their emergency response and fire protection teams, the public health office, school districts, and other agencies. No one will ever know how much money this disaster cost the public in the form of hospital bills or time taken off from work or school. And hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxins, in the form of ash, oil, water used to fight the fire, and fire suppressant foam, may still make its way into the water supply.

All this could have been prevented years ago. But despite the warnings of countless citizens and officials from neighboring cities-as well as similar incidents that have occurred around the country over the last two decades -the county of Stanislaus and the state of California spent millions of taxpayer dollars to virtually guarantee that this horrific event would transpire. ~~~ The Central Valley sun had already burned away the clouds by the time I arrive at the entrance to the tire dump, just past the truck weighing station and a diner where you can buy clocks adorned with the enameled face of Reba McEntire. All along this stretch of I-5, chipper signs advertise real estate for the legions of Silicon Valley commuters that everyone seems to think will inevitably begin to settle even out here; "Cattle land available here-commercial within its sphere!" reads one couplet. But the land these signs hawk is not showing well these days: acre after acre is blackened and charred. Four days after the lightning storm, the tire fire jumped into the surrounding hills and swept east and south, right to the lip of the freeway. Now rolls of dead, carbonized scrub lie still in the hot, motionless air.

I pull up to the guard shack at the entrance, past signs that announce, "Caution, drive slowly. Livestock loose in this area," and "Tire receiving hours 7 am to 5 pm." As I marvel at a family of prairie dogs that were apparently able to hunker down in their warren and sit out the brushfire, an elderly security guard takes down my name. I'd heard rumors that lines of trucks filled with used tires were parked nearby, waiting for the dump to reopen-any truth to that? I ask. The guard chuckles and suggests that a mob of angry neighbors would be out here in a second. "They'd be risking their lives, trying to get a pile of tires up in here now," he says. With that, a photographer and I drive down the broken, paved road, past another real estate jingle ("So much action west of I-5-night and day, business is alive!") and thread our way through the blackened hills into the heart of the Modesto Energy Limited Partnership facility, also known as the Westley tire pile.

Two elements confront us as we pause before the opening to the ravine. this one warning us that "chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm may be found at this facility." The second is a gulch the size of a modest apartment complex, carved out of the earth and filled with fluid. A tanker rig is parked nearby with a pumping generator running, and a man wearing a yellow contamination suit, a respirator, and a hardhat wades knee-deep into the fluid, slowly feeding in a hose. This is known as a retention pond, a ditch dug years ago to catch the runoff if a fire ever broke out here. The liquid is stained a deep brownish-red, interrupted here and there by rainbow-hued ripples. The red is rust; as the Westley tires lay here for decades, the steel belts inside oxidized from exposure to the elements, and as the fire shriveled the rubber around them, the wires were exposed to the outside air. When firefighters sprayed hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on them, the water blasted the oxidation off, and as the water collected in this pond, it formed an aqueous iron solution. As for the rainbow effect, that comes from the presence of oil.

When large stacks of tires burn, they do so in strata. The tires on the top layer are exposed to oxygen, so they combust and incinerate, eventually forming a black, tarry crust on the surface. The crust prevents oxygen from reaching the second layer of tires, which are subjected to incredible temperatures. Unable to combust, these tires undergo a process known as "pyrolysis," which is a fancy way of saying they liquefy into oil. During the Westley fire, 200,000 gallons of pyrolytic oil ran down the ravine in boiling streams and collected in this pond, where emergency workers frantically pumped it into storage tanks. We can smell the oil even now, as we stand beside the pond; it's not a sharp, volatile stench like gasoline, but a heavy taste that collects in the back of your mouth. If the fire had been allowed to worsen, more than one million gallons could have run down this grade, and the result would have been disastrous.

This ravine, you see, is actually a dry creek bed, part of a watershed that provides millions of Californians with drinking water. If a million gallons of pyrolytic oil had rolled down this hill, it could have flooded over the crest of the retention pond and into a culvert on the other side. The culvert would have transported the oil underneath I-5, overland through a series of agricultural fields, and above the California aqueduct through a series of pipes. From there, the oil would have been deposited into the Delta Mendota, which flows into reservoirs that contain the drinking water for the people of Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. Some people worry that so much oil could have actually swamped the culvert, flowed overland down the rest of the ravine, and spilled across the blacktop of I-5.

We turn away from the retention pond and drive into what was, two months ago, a plot of land buried beneath millions of tires. At first, I mistake the gray hillocks that tower above our heads to be an unbroken part of the foothills that comprise the western wall of the San Joaquin Valley. Eventually, I catch myself and realize that these are merely mounds of dirt mixed with melted tires-mounds the size of the nearby hills.

It was roughly forty years ago-no one is sure exactly-when a man named Ed Filbin first began dumping tires up here. For years, Filbin quietly went about his rather lucrative business, until neighbors and county officials noticed that he had deposited a staggering number of waste tires on what had once been a pristine hillside. Stanislaus County agencies spent a decade asking him nicely to conduct his business a little more responsibly, but Filbin ignored them with no repercussions. When he finally agreed to do something about the tires, Filbin's first act was to finagle tens of thousands of dollars out of the state's treasury-and then spent another two years doing exactly nothing. Eventually, he would sell his tire collection business for millions and claim that the tires were no longer his responsibility, even though he still owned the land on which they rest. Filbin made a fortune creating a public nuisance and a fire hazard of unimaginable proportions. So I suppose this story could be about him.

But it's about so much more than Ed Filbin. It could also be about how Stanislaus County officials valued Filbin's property rights and business interests over the health and safety of his neighbors. Or it could be about how once county officials realized what a tremendous nightmare Filbin had created on his property, they passed the buck from agency to agency, never daring to accept the awesome responsibility of cleaning up such a mess. It could even be about the power one man can attain by creating the potential for a disaster of such magnitude that no one dares make him angry-a concept summed up by one of Filbin's neighbors: "If I had put a dozen tires in my backyard," he said, "the county would have jumped on me immediately. But If I had put seven million tires in my back yard, the county would have let me do it."

Ultimately, however, this story is about all of us. It's about an environmental regulatory apparatus that realized too tragically late the danger that such piles, which lie in small clusters throughout California, represent. And it's about a state that produces 30 million waste tires every year and has only recently begun to wonder where they might be going. ~~~ A long time ago, before the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, or even the construction of I-5, Ed Filbin was already dumping used tires on his 6,000-acre ranch. Some accounts date Filbin's business as far back as the late 1950s, but by 1962, Filbin had formally created Ed's Tire Disposal and was hauling away tires for a small fee. It was a beautifully simple arrangement; no one wanted these tires, and if Filbin made a living by getting rid of them in the middle of nowhere-well, as Stanislaus County CEO Reagan Wilson put it recently, "People probably thought he was doing them a favor." There were no such things as environmental regulations or fire prevention requirements. The land wasn't even zoned. For up to ten years, no one realized the scale of what Filbin was doing, or cared to know. "He had this huge ravine, where it seemed entirely appropriate to dispose of millions of tires," says Pat Maisetti, the former mayor of the nearby town of Patterson and a longtime opponent of the pile. "You'd give him a few dollars, and he'd just drive up and roll the tires down the hill."

By 1970, Stanislaus County finally realized that Filbin had spent a decade dumping tires without any plans to get rid of them, and aerial reconnaissance photographs showed that the pile was steadily growing. In September of that year, county officials notified Filbin that if he was going to continue he would at least have to get a use permit, which would theoretically establish some limits or guidelines. Filbin ignored them. The county waited nineteen months for an answer before finally taking action, but in April 1972, the zoning board redrew the maps and declared that Filbin's land could only be used for agriculture. Now that Filbin was breaking the zoning laws-now that his tire pile was officially a "nonconforming use" of the property-surely he'd come to the table, and they could work something out.

Three years later, the county was still waiting, and Filbin was still dumping tires with abandon. Around this time, then-county-supervisor Gary Condit began to get annoyed. He had constituents living near the pile, and the prospect of a fire out there got worse with each new tire. But his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors didn't share his passion for bringing Filbin to heel, and settled on a strategy of asking Filbin nicely to obey the law. In 1975, county officials drove up to Filbin's land, conducted an inspection tour of the pile, and told Filbin that he had to get a use permit. That November, having heard nothing from Filbin, officials drove up to the pile once again and put a permit application in Filbin's hands. One week later, they mailed him a letter, ordering him to fill it out. A month later, they mailed him another letter. Finally, in January 1976, county representatives officially served Filbin with a notice to close and desist operation of his tire dump. Filbin now had just fifteen days to comply.

When, one year later, aerial reconnaissance photographs indicated that the tire pile was still growing, with no fire breaks or fire suppression equipment of any kind, officials met with Filbin and once again informed him that he had to get a use permit. A year later, in 1978, they told him again: "Get a permit or cease doing business by June." This time, Filbin acknowledged Stanislaus County long enough to tell them that, in fact, he had absolutely no intention of seeking their approval to conduct his business. County officials, no doubt aroused by Filbin's flouting of their authority, responded by doing nothing for two more years. In early 1980, they once again told Filbin to get a permit, and once again Filbin told them to go to hell. That May, the county issued its second cease and desist order. This time, Filbin was given only ten days to comply, but the deadline passed with no action from the county. ~~~ By now you can see that Filbin is a notoriously hard man to get a hold of; in fact, no media outlet has gotten him to comment on the fire, and calls made by this newspaper to his business partner were also not returned. Filbin did take the time to express himself in a 1987 letter to Gary Condit, who was by then a state Assemblyman. "Coming from the private sector," Filbin wrote, "I question the viability of more government and more regulation, i.e., government doing private industry's job…. While input is needed from governmental agencies (i.e., fire marshal, health departments, state officials), let's not get bogged down with rhetoric from certain groups that are constantly predicting the sky is falling." In 1993, New Yorker writer John McPhee had a brief phone interview with Filbin, during which he characterized government agencies as "dirty rotten bureaucrats," and added, "I told them to go jump in a crick," before hanging up the phone.

But there's clearly a more pressing question here: Why did the county, over the course of more than ten years, never once try to pursue legal action against Filbin? According to Vernon Seeley, an attorney with the Stanislaus County Counsel's office, they did. On two occasions, in 1981 and again in 1984, the county asked the district attorney's office to prosecute Filbin for operating a tire dump without a license and creating a public nuisance. When, on both occasions, the DA refused, there was not much they could do, Seeley claimed. At a recent state legislative hearing on the Westley tire fire, the county's current district attorney, Jim Brazelton, consulted his office's file on the subject (a file that, despite thirty years of legal controversy, is so thin you probably couldn't stop a door with it). According to his file, Brazelton said, there is no record of any county agency requesting such a prosecution. And, he pointed out, even if the DA had refused, the Board of Supervisors could have simply ordered him to go ahead with the action. "Since no action was taken, I gather that the Board of Supervisors never requested such an action," Brazelton concluded. When told that former supervisor Condit, who is now the region's congressional representative, could assure Brazelton that the county had indeed made such a request, Brazelton promised to look into the matter a little further.

Solange Goncalves Altman [then a staff attorney with the California Rural Assistance] who has had a long, bitter history of litigation against the Westley pile, came to the hearing a little better prepared. Altman submitted documented evidence of the DA's refusal to prosecute, and noted that while the DA at the time concluded that he had no grounds to pursue a criminal case, the county counsel had plenty of grounds to pursue a civil case; specifically, the counsel had the "authority to proceed with enforcement of zoning and expanded use violations." When I asked Seeley about that, he replied that, contrary to his own district attorney's opinion, the county had practically no legal power in this matter. "The government code doesn't authorize us to take civil action in nuisance abatement," Seeley said. "The district attorney is the one who has the public responsibility to enforce that." When I asked Seeley why his office didn't move against Filbin's zoning violations, he replied, "That's a crime, and that's a responsibility for the district attorney. We don't have that authority. We have some authority on land use issues-we can revoke a use permit, for example. But that was the problem, he never got a use permit. He just started stacking tires."

Of course, any property owner who's ever run afoul of the law knows exactly what kind of legal authority municipal and county governments have. The county, for example, could have cleaned up the site themselves and issued a lien against Filbin's property for the cost. Or more typically, the county could have just gotten a state or federal court injunction to stop the importation of new tires to the site, and if Filbin broke that injunction, he'd be in contempt of court and face fines and jail time. But despite the fact that there are thousands of instances in which counties throughout California have done just that, Seeley describes Stanislaus County as being almost eerily impotent. "The argument that only the DA can move on this baffles most people watching this thing," says Mike Lynch, Condit's chief of staff. "When you have cars parked on your front lawn, or you build an addition to your house without a permit, it's not the district attorney who comes and gets you. The fact is that from local to state authorities, every decision that was ever made here accommodated Mr. Filbin and his business partners at the expense of the people in the surrounding community. And the result was this fire."

Indeed, from the Board of Supervisors on down to mid-level administrators, the governmental apparatus of Stanislaus County displayed a remarkably casual attitude in regard to the Westley tire pile, and seemed to find neighbors who raised a fuss over the dump a greater irritant than the dump itself. In 1982, County Supervisor Ray Simon, after twelve years of legal fights with Filbin, rose in his defense at a public meeting: "Everybody tells me [his business is illegal], but there's nobody that says… that they can prevent him from dumping tires on his own property." Five years later, Simon would dismiss public opposition to a controversial plan to build a tire incinerator on Filbin's property as "all gobbledegook." (Simon did not return phone calls for comment.) And Richard Gaiser, the deputy fire chief for West Stanislaus County-and the man responsible for fighting the fire in its first few days-has a certain sympathy for Filbin's point of view. "You gotta remember it was an existing pile," Gaiser says. "You can't just force the property owner to comply with rules that weren't in place when the pile first got started. If you take that attitude, you're not gonna be around very long. The owner will just take his business elsewhere, and we're stuck with a few million tires." As for neighbors opposed to the tire incinerator that was later built, Gaiser says, "I can't account for people's ignorance. That's the biggest impediment to progress: ignorant people."

Over the next few years, Filbin would capitalize on such attitudes. Having made a fortune assembling a vast public health hazard, Filbin would spend the '80s using that hazard as leverage to extract millions of dollars in pure profit from business partners and the State of California. And his tire pile would still be there. ~~~ Discarded tires have a way of defying gravity. Their surfaces are deliberately designed to provide as much friction as possible, and their doughnut shapes and hollow tubes offer plenty of nooks and crannies for all kinds of objects, even their sister tires, to latch onto. So when thousands of them are stacked together in a single pile, they interlock like immovable, gray legos. As I stand on a ledge overlooking the ravine that once contained the largest collection of tires in the history of the world, I gaze upon the one small pile to the south that escaped the fire. "Small," of course, is a relative term, for there are roughly 650,000 tires in this particular collection. They hug the side of the steep grade with a fierce tenacity. So powerful is their ability to cling to one another that they extend in a nearly horizontal line, into thin air. It is a great, gray, perforated tire cliff, complete with tire stalactites hanging from it. It is a land mass in and of itself, a geographical element so large that it deserves its own name in some geologist's registry. The "Goodyear precipice" maybe. For by 1982, there were an estimated twelve million such tires here at the Westley dump.

No one knows why, after twelve years of stonewalling the county, Filbin finally decided to do something about his tires. Perhaps he thought he'd found a way to make money by destroying them, or maybe he just got tired of taking the heat. But in 1982, Filbin approached the county with a proposal. He said he had contacted the state's Solid Waste Management Board with a plan to shred his tires, and the board had agreed to give him a $150,000 grant to buy an industrial shredder from a company in Texas. All he needed was a use permit, Filbin promised, and he could get rid of every single tire on his land within ten years. The county eagerly agreed to rezone his land to allow a shredding operation. But then something funny happened. Rather than install the shredder at the dump, Filbin sold it and pocketed the money. The state sued Filbin to recover the money, but no one knows if the lawsuit was ever resolved.

Meanwhile, the first major tire fire in the country's history broke out on the East Coast. In a wooded area near the town of Winchester, Virginia, some five million tires burst into flame on the morning of October 31, 1983. Flames leaped eighty feet into the air, and the plume of smoke expanded to darken an area of fifty square miles. Pyrolytic oil burbled out in great draughts and threatened to spark new fires in the surrounding woods. Firefighters tried to put out the blaze, but pockets of air trapped in the pile made the task virtually impossible, and emergency workers concluded that they had no choice but to let the fire burn itself out, a process that took nine months.

The Virginia incident gave the country its first taste of what big tire fires could do, and public opinion began to turn on Filbin. But even his critics had a hard time answering the inevitable question: if you find merely dumping tires unacceptable, what should we do with them instead? Placing tires in ordinary landfills has proven unfeasible; due to their awkward shape, tires tend to rise to the landfill surface, where rainwater collects in them and provides a habitat for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying vermin. Some critics have proposed shredding tires and using them to create rubber-modified asphalt concrete, for use as highways. Rubber-modified roads have a number of advantages: they absorb heat and slough off ice and snow better than ordinary roads; in fact, not only do rubber-modified roads last twice as long as other roads, they actually reduce glare and cut down highway noise. But when a road's life span is up, rubber asphalt is more difficult than ordinary asphalt to recycle, so creating rubber-modified roads may only delay finding a solution to the problem of waste tires. Others have proposed burning tires in cement kilns-a process that could easily get rid of every waste tire in the country-but environmental groups have objected to the toxic emissions that this process could release. "Waste tires are a tough problem," says Seymour Schwartz, a UC Davis professor of environmental studies who conducted an investigation into the subject for the California Integrated Waste Board. "Using rubber in road surfacing looks like a very promising option, but right now it doesn't use a large percentage of the tires. The demand hasn't been created; CalTrans hasn't been aggressive enough. The long-term strategy is to require a longer life span for tires. We already have tires that can run for 100,000 miles. It that were mandated for all new cars, you could get a thirty to forty percent reduction in the generation of waste tires." ~~~

In 1984, Filbin approached the county with another idea: he wanted to build a pyrolysis plant on his dump, to extract and recycle the oil from his tires. County officials gave his plans the once-over and decided that the pyrolysis plant wouldn't present a significant threat to the environment, so they waived the requirement to conduct an environmental impact report. But a few months later, Filbin was back with a new partner, a business called the Oxford Energy Company. Instead of melting down the tires, Filbin proposed, he and Oxford would incinerate them, use the heat to fuel an electrical generator, and sell the power to PG&E. Thanks to state laws dating back to the energy crisis, the utility company had an obligation to buy power from sources other than oil, even if the production costs were higher, as would certainly be the case here. The county agreed to change the plan and essentially crossed out "pyrolysis" on the application and penciled in "incinerator." But to many neighbors, there was a big difference between the two. Incinerating tires creates many more toxic emissions than pyrolysis, and this would be the first tire incinerator ever built in the United States. On that basis alone, they claimed, an EIR should be called for. But the county, eager to put this headache behind them, quickly green-lighted the incinerator and finalized the deal in 1987.

With this one deal, Filbin made millions of dollars, and with the county's compliance, forced unacceptable terms on his partners. He even got the state to subsidize the new tire incinerator, which was built by Oxford Energy to the tune of $41 million, most of which came in the form of loans. The California Alternative Energy Financing Authority, an arm of the state Treasury Department and another holdover from the oil crisis of the '70s, financed the $30 million loan by issuing a bond. Of course, the incinerator was built on land owned by Filbin, so Oxford had to pay him an undisclosed annual rent.

Because Filbin had such a dubious history, the county insisted that Oxford Energy take over his tire collection business, a move that Darryl Weitel of the county planning department says Oxford never requested. "Oxford never wanted to get into bed with Filbin," Weitel says. "They didn't even want to have their plant on Filbin's land. But the county was concerned about having Filbin continue to own the collection business." Unfortunately, Oxford couldn't simply take over the business-they had to buy it and the price tag was reportedly $2.7 million. Finally, Filbin made a killing on the tires themselves. Under the terms of the county deal, Oxford was required to burn a certain number of Filbin's tires every year. But the deal didn't stipulate that Filbin had to give the tires away. So Filbin sold them to Oxford for an annual sum of $1 million. ~~~

Still, few would have begrudged Filbin's profits if they had resulted in getting rid of the tires. In fact, the opposite was true. Oxford Energy was already reeling under a mountain of debt in order to finance the construction of the incinerator, and the added burden of paying Filbin meant they had to come up with a way to raise some fast cash. Most of Filbin's tires were years, even decades old, and they would prove to be a barrier to generating the kind of capital Oxford needed. The older tires had a different composition than newer tires; they didn't burn as hot, which meant Oxford had to burn more of the older tires in order to maintain the same level of heat as it could have gotten from newer tires. In addition, Oxford picked up a lucrative "tipping fee" every time they imported new tires to the site. So instead of burning off Filbin's original pile, which was one of the main goals of building the incinerator, the cash-strapped management focused on burning new tires, leaving the original pile mostly undiminished. "Because of the dirt that had accumulated on the old tires, burning them would have been rougher on the system," says Stan Patterson, a former employee of the incinerator. "Plus, the older tires don't produce as many British Thermal Units as the new ones. So what they did was say, 'We're reducing the pile, because every year we're burning five million tires, but only taking in four million.'"

But as far as Darryl Weitel was concerned, the company could do anything it wanted with the incinerator, as long as it resulted in fewer tires at the Filbin pile. "As long as they were burning [Filbin's] tires according to our schedule, we didn't care how many tires they were importing," he says. "We required them to reduce the pile by a certain time, we required them to have a certain number of gallons of foam suppressant on hand, and we required them to have fire lanes in the pile. We were getting a pretty good handle on things when the state and others came along."

While the deal was still being brokered, attorney Solange Altman met with her colleagues at the Ecology Action Education Institute, a local environmental watchdog group. They decided that the county couldn't be trusted to safeguard their interests and, in 1986, filed suit against Filbin, Oxford Energy, and the county. "[The county] sat on their hands for twenty years," Altman says. "They did a lot of talking, they threatened to bring the hammer down [on Filbin], but they never did-they save the hammer to beat up on private plaintiffs who complain. But we knew that if there was ever a fire there, it would be the migrant workers who would be the most impacted. We wanted to get an EIR, have the pile declared a nuisance, and have them remediate it."

By December 1987, the state Attorney General's office threw its support behind Altman [and the citizens of Stanislaus County]. Deputy attorney general Ken Alex decided that the county's arrangement with Filbin was much too generous; allowing the importation of new tires when there were millions already on site was unacceptable (according to the county's schedule, Filbin's tires wouldn't be completely gone until 2015, which was a full 28 years away). Alex joined the lawsuit to ban the tire importation and to force Filbin to create fire breaks in the pile. The nearby cities of Atwater, Dos Palos, and Merced also declared their support for stronger regulations. But in a bizarre twist, Stanislaus County actually sided with Filbin and filed a countersuit against Ecology Action and the California Attorney General, declaring that the lawsuits could jeopardize the incinerator's financing and scuttle the whole deal.

A few months later, a superior court judge ruled that although tires could still come onto the site, fire breaks had to be carved out of the pile. That set the stage for the Attorney General, Filbin, and Oxford to sit down and talk. In 1990, they signed a stipulated agreement to reduce the pile to four million tires by 2004. "What the judge did was to split the baby," Alex says. "[Oxford Energy had] said, 'Look, we didn't cause this problem, we're part of the solution.' So our compromise was an attempt to reconcile their need to stay in business with our need to deal with this problem."

By 1996, conditions had improved somewhat at the Westley dump. Oxford had burned more than six million of Filbin's tires, and some fire lanes had been carved. The incinerator had destroyed an additional forty million tires that would otherwise have headed straight into the state's waste stream. But by then things had changed in Sacramento. Now, more than a century after the invention of the automobile, state lawmakers had finally established regulations around the maintenance of tire piles, and the California Integrated Waste Management Board began to come down hard on Filbin. In 1998, the board prohibited all new tire imports to the site and demanded that Filbin and his partners clean up the mess. Filbin tried his usual tactics-at one point, he physically removed an inspector from his land -but this time, the state was serious. That August, for the first time in forty years, someone drew a line in the sand. Clean up the site and submit plans to completely eradicate the pile within thirty days, the state told Filbin, or face fines of up to $10,000 a day. A few weeks after his final appeal was rejected, storm clouds began gathering over the Westley tire pile. ~~~

The tire incinerator is perched on a hill directly above the ravine where Filbin's tires were once stacked, and a conveyor belt leads down the grade into the canyon for three hundred feet. As I stand next to the belt, Dan Shane, the man who oversaw the federal EPA's emergency response team, points out unusual elements in the vista of devastation before us. Over to the right is what's left of Filbin's loading ramp. Once it rested upon millions of tires, and haulers simply backed their trucks onto it and out to the center of the pile, where they would dump their goods; now, it's nothing but a twisted collection of blackened steel shards, rolled up in a ball the size of several recreational vehicles and resting on the side of a hill. Deep in the bottom of the ravine, arson investigators poke around and sniff out clues, while a cleanup crew tries to deal with the huge "quenching ponds" left over from the fire-as firefighters began to make headway, they realized that all the foam in the world wouldn't take care of the fire by itself. The fire had superheated the tires' steel radials until they were glowing red; unless the radial wires were dealt with, the fire would simply reignite. So emergency workers filled great ditches with water, and scoop shovels dragged clumps of the smoking, tar-encrusted radials into the quenching ponds to cool down.

Incinerator employees have fired up the plant for a test run, just in case the state agrees to let them resume importing tires sometime soon. Shouting over the noise of the engines, Shane explains how the fire first began. "The fire spread that way, started shooting down canyon to the north there," he says. "Just this huge fire, thick black smoke-everything engulfed. And out in front of the smoke was this huge ball of fire, two hundred feet high, just racing down the canyon. You know, tires have a lot of fuel in them. They're better than coal, fuel oil, just about anything. People usually think that tire fires are just a nuisance, but to respond to these things is an enormous task, and the dangers that the response teams face are enormous. It's a three-dimensional fire, there are countless gaps for air to get in, the temperatures are incredible-you know, they're horrible. And they should never be. You should never have piles like this."

On September 22, at around four in the morning, deputy fire marshal Richard Gaiser got the call: the unthinkable had happened up at the old Filbin ranch. Within minutes, pagers were going off all over the west side of Stanislaus County, and members of Gaiser's all-volunteer crew scrambled to the scene. What they found was ghastly: several hundred square feet were already consumed in an orange blaze, and chunks of tires rose into the air like embers. The radiating heat was incredible-Gaiser's men could never get closer than 25 feet, and as the fire grew they were pushed back fifty, then a hundred feet. Some of them dragged sheets of plywood from the dump and used them as heat shields, but it was just too intense. The paint on their fire trucks bubbled and peeled off, and the plastic on the warning lights melted into pools. "Finally, we thought, 'We haven't got anybody hurt yet, but we're not making any headway. Let's just back off and see what we can do to keep it from spreading,'" Gaiser says.

Karen Cox grows tomatoes and bell peppers at a ranch two miles from Filbin's land. For years, she had fretted over the pile, and when she woke up at dawn that morning, her husband told her the bad news. "He walked into the room and said, 'Honey, there's something you should see.' I walked outside and looked up, and there was the smoke rising up over the hills," Cox says. For the next month, a nasty stench would be her constant companion, particularly in the mornings, when the cool temperature allowed the smoke to settle close to the ground. Soon her employees began to complain of chest pains, headaches, burning eyes, and occasional dizziness.

This community had already had experience dealing with tire fires. A couple of miles up the road, just outside of Tracy, a pile of five million tires caught fire in August 1998, and parts of it are still smoldering today. The list of toxins generated by such catastrophes is impressive. The larger clumps of particulate matter aren't so bad, because most of these are caught in the sinus passages and expelled. But the smaller particulate matter, known as PM10, can drift through nose hair and other defenses, settle in the lungs, and cause damage, particularly to asthmatics. Thousands of pounds of carbon monoxide are released during major tire fires, as well as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which have been linked to lung cancer. At one point, the Westley fire was predicted to release 70,000 pounds of PAHs, as well as 141,000 pounds of the carcinogen benzene, 10,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene (a compound linked to leukemia), and trace amounts of arsenic, chromium, and lead.

The San Joaquin Valley is perhaps the worst possible place for a disaster like this to break out, for its air quality is already abysmal. And its water isn't much better. Large amounts of agricultural pesticides have been found in the water supply. Nitrate pollution, which has been linked to miscarriages, can leach from dairy farms into waterways, where they mingle with gas, oil, and MTBE from jet skis in the nearby Woodward reservoir. This is one of the country's centers for illegal methamphetamine production, and the byproducts of these clandestine meth labs are routinely buried or dumped into rivers and canals. Interstate 5 is the state's main freight hauling route, and diesel engines dump exhaust into the air. And now, new commuters to and from the Bay Area have begun to add to the emissions. On top of that, the San Joaquin Valley is a great big bowl, thereby preventing toxins from drifting to other parts of California, so once you dump crap in the valley, it moves right in and makes itself at home.

As health complaints began to trickle in from all over the county, some experts sounded a note of caution. When disasters of this magnitude happen, they warn, a psychological placebo effect often overtakes the nearby population. Before the disaster, a headache was just a headache, but once disquieting images of burning tires flash across television screens, or people gaze up at the tunnel of smoke on the horizon, the specter of doom that the smoke represents begins to oppress their thoughts. Suddenly, there is a tangible, attributable reason for everyday aches and pains. A headache, they argued, could still just be a headache. According to Wallace Carroll, an asthma specialist at the nearby Sutter Gould medical group, fall is the worst time of year for respiratory problems related to pollution, and we may never be able to pinpoint how much worse the tire fire made life in the valley. "The Central Valley has a problem every year with dust from the almond harvests," Carroll says. "I saw a three-car pileup the other day that happened because of a cloud of almond dust. Ninety percent of the people I see this time of year have little excoriations, cuts in their mucous membrane. I think there was some increase over the usual in the category of upper respiratory infections. I can't attribute it all to the tire fire, but it added insult to injury. It makes you angry, because it was preventable, but now it's contributing to the problem."

In the first few days of the fire, the wind was kind to Stanislaus County. The intense heat created a chimney effect that sent of most of the smoke spinning thousands of feet into the air, where prevailing winds sent it drifting westward to the South Bay. People in San Jose and Fremont began to report a weird haze, ashes in the air, greasy slicks forming on the surfaces of backyard swimming pools, and incidents of "black rain." But just to be safe, Stanislaus County officials issued a health advisory. People with asthma or emphysema were advised to stay indoors, with the windows closed and the air conditioning turned off. Students at the Grayson Elementary School, located just a few miles from the fire, were kept indoors, and recess was canceled.

Meanwhile, deputy fire marshal Richard Gaiser decided that his men had done all they could. His fire district only has an annual budget of $250,000, and he had six hundred square miles of territory to patrol and five fire stations to operate. The fire wasn't going out, but it looked like it wasn't going anywhere either. After four days, Gaiser pulled up stakes and told his men to go home. "Usually, we turn a big fire over to the owner after 24 hours," he says. "We're a volunteer fire department. There's no way we could ask our people to do that kind of duty, to take them away from their families and their jobs. I don't want to put them in a position where they have to choose between making a living and fighting this fire."

Later that night, the tire fire jumped over to the pools of pyrolytic oil that had been collecting nearby. Now it was an oil fire, a much more noxious event, and then it got even worse. The burning oil jumped to the surrounding grasses, and a brushfire erupted, racing toward I-5 with breathtaking speed. By the time Gaiser's men had returned to contain it, one thousand acres of grassland had burned. "Somehow the oil got back down and started the fires, and then it spread to the grass," Gaiser recalls. "I don't know how it got to the oil pond. Maybe it was the weather, it was pretty windy up there. Something didn't cooperate."

Caught in the middle of the burning tires, the oil fire, and the smoldering grasses underfoot were a series of power transmission lines suspended between tall steel poles. This is the Pacific Intertie, the central electrical grid for the western United States. With 500,000 volts surging through its wires, the Pacific Intertie transmits a vast amount of power back and forth between Northern and Southern California. If enough oil fire smoke had engulfed these lines, particulate matter could have settled on the wires. Power could have arced from the wires, shorting out the system, blacking out whole communities and plunging millions of people into darkness. ~~~

By the end of the first week of the fire, the stress was beginning to get to Sandra Miller, a local neighbor and mother of two. Miller and her family woke up each morning with an unaccountable lethargy and depression, as if there were no earthly reason to get out of bed. "Every time I took my nine-year-old to school, I'd look over my shoulder, and there would be the smoke over the hills," she says. "I'd check each morning to see which way the wind was blowing, to see whether he'd breathe it in school today." Her stress was compounded by the sudden ailments afflicting her youngest son, Nathaniel. He had developed a strange chapping on his face; the skin around his nose and mouth was cracked and peeling, and his eyes got red and watery. Miller applied a steady stream of cortisone, but then Nathaniel suffered an outbreak of a recurring tonsil infection. "When his allergies are bad, his tonsils get these infected patches on them," Miller complains. "He can't swallow, he has a hard time drinking water without gagging. It was ninety something-degree weather, but I couldn't take him outside, because the air would make him sick. I had a really hard time explaining that to a two-year-old. There were times when we tried to open a window at night, and it smelled like there was a diesel engine running in our back yard. At this point, I wish I had paid more attention to that fight [over the tires]. I always figured someone would deal with this, but no one ever did."

On the night of the brushfire, some two hundred irate citizens crowded into a public meeting at the Westley Hotel. County CEO Reagan Wilson, fire warden Russ Richards, and public health officer Alvaro Garza answered what questions they could, but the crowd was in a mood to vent. When Solange Altman suggested that Stanislaus County could see an outbreak of birth defects and cancer clusters, Garza instructed people to sneeze out any dark matter they found collecting in their noses. That may have been good advice, but to the public, it sounded like yet another example of the cavalier attitude their public servants had taken toward their health for thirty years. A month later, Garza would resign.

On September 28, county supervisors officially declared a state of emergency and supported an effort to establish a "citizen's committee" of neighbors to monitor future attempts to regulate the pile. But that wasn't good enough for Richard Harriman, an attorney who had worked with Altman back in the '80s. Infuriated at the county's insistence that they have had little responsibility for the pile since the state intervened, Harriman shouted, "I'm not going to let you dodge the ball this time, Ray!" at supervisor Ray Simon, who threatened to have Harriman removed from the meeting. Shortly afterwards, managers at the tire incinerator announced that they were planning to begin accepting and burning tires again as soon as possible. Cardoza retorted that this was unacceptable, and not one more tire would find its way to the Filbin ranch until the fire is out and a plan to completely remediate the site put into effect.

But where would those tires go in the meantime? Under normal conditions, the incinerator had the capacity to burn 18,000 tires a day; every day it was out of commission meant 18,000 more tires were backing up somewhere in the waste stream. Some officials worried that people would begin dumping tires illegally around the county.

As tensions and political fallout began to radiate throughout the county, officials with the US Coast Guard (who thanks to their unfortunate history of coping with oil spills have a particular expertise in these kinds of crises) called with some helpful advice about fighting the oil fire. Based out of Texas, the Williams Fire and Hazard Control company has brought seemingly unstoppable fires to a standstill for twenty years. They've wrestled with a flaming tanker barge on the Amazon River, a tanker in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and other hot spots around the world, using suppressant foam and hoses they designed themselves. (John Wayne celebrated their exploits in the 1969 film, The Hellfighters.) But they don't come cheap, and one estimate put the price for their services at $30,000 a day. The federal EPA agreed to front the money for the cleanup in the short term, but lawyers were already working on a plan to hold Filbin liable for the cost.

To everyone's surprise, the Williams company more than rose to the occasion. Within days, the oil fire was nothing but an unpleasant memory, and on October 4, the company turned its attention to the tires themselves. ~~~

But that was small comfort to Barbara Watson. Watson has been a special education teacher at the Grayson Elementary School for the last fourteen years. For the last ten years or so, she has suffered from a severe respiratory allergy to environmental pollution. "I have a history of asthma, and in the fall, when they shake the trees to get the almonds, I get allergic to the pollens," Watson says. "I get a shot of allergy medicine once a week. It didn't happen as soon as I moved here, it came on gradually. But if you transfer out of the district, your pay can get reduced and your seniority calculated differently, so I kinda got economically trapped here." Grayson is just a few miles from the pile, and from the day the fire first broke out, Watson could feel it. Her lungs began to tighten up like a fist, and she began sucking on her inhaler up to eight times a day, despite her doctor's recommendation. She spent the first two weeks of the fire going about her job as usual; every morning, school officials would go online to check the air quality and determine whether her students could play outside during recess. Though her aide lost her voice after a few days, the tightness in Watson's chest ebbed and flowed, so she wasn't disposed to panic.

On October 8, her breathing was particularly labored, so Watson left work early and came home to sit out the weekend with her dogs. By nine that evening, she had managed to forget about her lungs with a movie, but when she got up to feed her dogs, her chest seemed to seize up. It felt, she says, like someone had flipped a switch and turned her lungs off. "As soon as I realized what was happening, I went across the room and tried to use my nebulizer, a machine which dilates my alveoli sacs. But I didn't have enough breath to get myself organized. I dialed 911 and said, 'I can't breathe,' and I could hardly say that. The last thing I remember was hanging up. The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital, and it was two hours later."

Watson spent the next two days at the Memorial Medical Center. She responded well to asthma medicine, which spared her from being admitted to the intensive care unit. The paramedics, alarmed at receiving a call from someone who had collapsed on the line, raced over and broke her door down; in the confusion, one of her dogs-Winnie, a Belgian Tervuren with a jumpy temperament-panicked and bolted down the street, and Watson hasn't seen her since.

After Watson was released from the hospital, she came to a new arrangement at school. Once upon a time, Watson would simply walk outside and pull her kids out of class when their hour with her had come. After her hospital stay, however, she refused to leave her room, and the school secretary had to summon her students over the public address system.

"Now I take my cell phone everywhere I go, because I never know when I might have to call 911," Watson says. "I feel pretty angry about this, you know. If this pile had been near the Del Rio Country Club in Modesto, in the elite area with the million-dollar homes, they would've gotten rid of it in a second. It would be unthinkable to dump the tires there, but it's perfectly okay to dump the tires near a migrant labor camp, because who cares about those Mexicans, right? That's the attitude. And I wish the county would help me find my dog."

~~~

At first, the burning tires looked almost impossible to extinguish. Attempts to put out tire fires in Colorado, Guam, Toronto, and Washington State had all proved unsuccessful in the past; and this one was located in steep terrain that made it difficult to gain access to the fire's center. At one point, the federal budget crisis in Washington, DC put such a strain on the EPA's budget that it looked like the feds would have to pack up and leave. But gradually, over the course of three weeks, the Williams company made headway. The steepness of the terrain turned out to be the firefighters' best friend; usually, pyrolytic oil settles to the bottom of these piles and reignites the fire, but the ravine's grade drained the oil out and allowed it to collect a safe distance away. By October 26, the last flickers of the 1999 Westley tire fire had been doused.

Now the long, arduous process of cleaning up the site, assigning responsibility for the fire, and determining what to do with Ed Filbin is about to begin. Already, two East Bay attorneys have filed a class action lawsuit against Filbin on behalf of many of the pile's neighbors. At a public meeting late in October, up to two hundred West Stanislaus County citizens came forward and tallied their symptoms; the list included headaches, vomiting, nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, seizures, and coughing up blood. District Attorney Jim Brazelton is investigating what charges, if any, should be brought against whom.

Meanwhile, two million unburned tires still lie in the Filbin dump, and most of these-oversized off-road tires that cannot fit in the incinerator-will be shredded and delivered to the Altamont landfill. The winter rains have already begun, and state agencies are working around the clock to "winterize" the ravine. Thousands of tons of ash, pyrolytic oil, wastewater, and foam lie in a hard paste on the canyon floor, and unless the state can build check dams upstream in time, the canyon's winter creek will come to life and wash it straight into the drinking water of a significant part of Southern California.

Recently, the Stanislaus County grand jury determined that since so many state agencies and private attorneys were looking into this incident for their own reasons, they would not conduct their own investigation. But for Solange Altman, the only way this community can begin to heal itself is if it convenes its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to get to the truth, once and for all, behind how this tragedy could ever have happened. "I'm a mother of two kids, and when I think of the women who sent their children outside the county to live with relatives because they're so afraid, when I hear stories of children getting spontaneous nosebleeds, or being forbidden from playing outside, I get emotional. How could this have happened? How many children are going to get asthma now? I want to see the men who made these decisions put under oath and explain it to us. We're entitled to know why they made these decisions. I want to hear it."

At the end of my tour of the Westley fire, I find myself standing at the side of an access road that had been buried for years beneath millions of tires. Stretched out before me is perhaps the first tire swamp in the history of the planet. Pools of oil and wastewater lie stagnant and gleaming among discarded whole tires and others that have melted together into a solid, rubber mass. Little viscous canals link the ponds and form tire islands that lie still and gray and dead. The smell of oil is still heavy in the air, and clumps of exposed, oxidized radials sprout out of the landscape like tufts of red hair.

From somewhere in this dismaying place, several tires have been disassembled into billions of black particles, into benzene and arsenic and 1,3-butadiene, and this poisonous brew has risen into the winds and settled in the lungs of June Miller, a housewife and mother of four children. Miller, who had just moved to Stanislaus County from San Jose, where her husband works as a Cadillac mechanic, wasn't prepared for the onslaught of pesticides and smog and almond dust. So perhaps she hadn't acclimated to life in the valley. She'd already been popping Allegra to stave off the allergies she'd developed this fall, but when the tire fire started, all the Allegra in the world wouldn't contain the fatigue and the headaches that began to flare. Miller stopped driving her son to the McDonald's where he works, just a mile down the road from Filbin's ranch. By September 29, she was gravely ill. "I was doing a lot of throwing up, and my ears hurt so bad that it felt like there was fluid in them, and I kept putting Q-tips in them, trying to drain the fluid," Miller says. "It felt like there were rocks in my throat, my eyes were burning, my nose was bleeding, and my chest felt like someone was lying on top of it."

That night, Miller was checked into the emergency room at Modesto Memorial Hospital. Her headaches had become so painful that the attending physician thought she might have meningitis and ordered a spinal tap. They rehydrated her intravenously and suggested she go stay in the Bay Area for a while. A week later, her oldest son drove her to the Kaiser Santa Theresa Center in San Jose. "I was deteriorating away," Miller says. "My son had to help me walk into Santa Theresa. I couldn't stop throwing up, it was so bad, I couldn't begin to tell you. When I got to San Jose, I still had the headache, but it began to clear up a little." Doctors at Santa Theresa diagnosed her with a respiratory infection, gave her a regimen of antibiotics, and sent her home. The next night, Miller passed out in her bathroom and banged her head against the counter as she went down. Her husband carried her down the stairs, with blood trickling from her nose, and drove her once again to the hospital, where she stayed for five days. "Why hasn't the governor mentioned what's happened here?" Miller asks. "How is it that we send all this money overseas, and we're not even thought of when we hurt? Is it because there are so many migrant workers here? Nobody cares about us, nobody sends any medical attention to us. But we're sick."

June Miller is one of the indirect casualties of our collective irresponsibility. Who among us can say that it wasn't one of our tires that vaporized and found her? Who can say that we ever took the time to wonder where they went once they were pulled from the rims of our Volvos and hauled away? We let Ed Filbin go unregulated for so long because we valued his willingness to take away our tires and put them somewhere out of sight more than we feared what those tires might eventually do to us. Filbin gave us a solution to our waste tire problem, but it was a quickie answer that eventually gave us a terrible hangover, and our lifelong diet of rubber doughnuts has degraded into arteriosclerosis, clogging up our air and water system.

But perhaps that's a bit harsh. Filbin began his tire pile in an era when we had no notion of limits, when we, in our giddy post-war optimism, thought we would cure every disease and find an answer to every problem. There was always room for another suburb down the road, always another oil reserve we could tap. But gradually, by learning the lessons of Love Canal and Three Mile Island, we began to realize that our lifestyles had consequences, that our environment could take just so much abuse before it began to hit back. From the mincing steps taken by Stanislaus County authorities in the '70s, through the Attorney General's lawsuit in the '80s, to the ultimatum finally delivered by the Waste Management Board, our tolerance for Filbin's way of doing business diminished as our environmental awareness increased. If that September thunderstorm had happened just two years later, we never would have experienced this tragedy, for Filbin's pile-and every other tire pile that size in the state-would have been gone.

But our new resolution to never allow the stockpiling of millions of waste tires in one place has done nothing to stop the generation of waste tires. Every day, the state of California produces 82,192 waste tires, and whether we amass them in a ravine in the San Joaquin Valley or litter them in small landfills throughout the state, they will still be with us, millions of toxic tablets of concentrated petroleum and misery. The state Assembly has recently begun discussing a two dollar buyer's fee for each set of tires, in order to finance a better disposal system. But no matter how many tires we burn, shred, or melt, they just keep coming, threatening to overwhelm us. Perhaps the end of the era of giant tire piles will usher in an even worse period, for without the specter of Filbin's disaster waiting to happen, how will we ever find the motivation to deal once and for all with such a problem?

I once heard Alexander Cockburn marvel at how we could consider the Exxon Valdez spill a "disaster." Dumping eleven million gallons of oil onto an Alaskan beach was a catastrophe, Cockburn noted, but shipping eleven million gallons of oil to Southern California, burning it, and spreading the fumes all over the Los Angeles basin was a triumph of industry. Maybe we need men like Ed Filbin to terrify us once in a while, to enshrine the folly with which we slap down turnpikes and churn out SUVs, to remind us that no matter how souped-up the engine, how sexy the finish or comfortable the upholstery, sooner or later the road on which we're traveling must come to an end.

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  12/5/99