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Tired Out

When night falls, illegal tire dumpers rule the backstreets of Cleveland.


Tire dumpers prey on nonresidential areas. - WALTER  NOVAK
The lot next to Terry Cuccarese's small factory on St. Clair Avenue is irresistible to one breed of elusive criminal: the scrap tire dumper.

When Cuccarese came to work one Monday morning in July, he found hundreds of old tires dumped near his building. By lunchtime, a second pile had appeared.

"I was aggravated, to say the least," he says. "We've been dumped on for years and years, but to see something like this -- the pile was about seven or eight feet high. I couldn't imagine the size of the truck that dropped those off."

All across Cleveland, tire dumpers unload their cargoes on little-traveled, hidden streets and alleys near railroad tracks, factories, and junkyards.

"It's a terrible problem," says City Council President Mike Polensek. "When you talk about dumping . . . tires are the number-one enemy." Just about every week, Polensek finds a few dumped tires in his East Side ward and reports them to city trash collectors. He's hauled floating tires out of Euclid Creek, which flows through his backyard.

Officials suspect the main culprits are corrupt, small-time tire haulers. They can save about $100 to $150 by dumping a load of 100 tires instead of paying recyclers. Lazy, cheap car owners may also be part of the problem, refusing to pay garages' disposal fees (about $2 a tire), then tossing the tires -- even though Cleveland residents can put up to four tires out with their trash every week.

But no one's sure who the dumpers are, because most work at night, and they hardly ever get caught. Cleveland officials don't believe they've ever prosecuted a tire hauler for dumping in the city.

Thom Byrd lives in one of the few houses on Train Avenue, a road that winds along railroad tracks on the West Side. Almost every morning, he finds a couple of new tires on his street, scattered as if thrown one by one from a moving truck.

"The fucking tires, man -- you can't stop them from throwing them out," Byrd says.

Just down from Byrd's house, the West 41st Street bridge spans his street and the tracks. The underpass was a favorite dumping ground until September, says Byrd, when cleanup crews hauled away "mounds" of tires from the slope leading from Train to the tracks. Tires are still showing up near the bridge, one or four at a time. Police stake out repeatedly trashed sites. Dumping tires is a felony, and the city offers rewards if a tip to its dumping hotline (664-DUMP) leads to a bust.

Health inspectors also look for illegal dumps. Tire piles shelter rodents and breed mosquitoes, which love the heat tires absorb and the water they collect. If tires catch fire, they burn red hot, give off thick black smoke, and melt into an oil that pollutes soil and streams.

In 1996, Ohio forced tire haulers and handlers to register with the state and keep records of transactions. Last year, for the first time, Cleveland inspected those records to see if any scrap tires are unaccounted for.

"We think that has discouraged the wholesale dumping you may have seen in the past," says Michele Whitlow, director of public health. About 1.2 million tires were properly disposed of in Cuyahoga County in 1998, up from 560,000 three years ago.

In September, about 8,000 tires were picked up in Cleveland during the city's annual scrap tire roundup. Eight men sentenced to community service cleaned up a vacant lot on East 80th Street, where hundreds of tires were lying among an occasional couch, mattress, and pile of construction debris. Bugs buzzed around old piles half-hidden by weeds. A newer bunch lay near the road: a Goodyear here, a Uniroyal there, and a Firestone, with its edge ripped open, had "recall" written on it in chalk.

"It's an out-of-the-way place, not residential," observed the crew's supervisor, Ben Cartmel. "At nighttime, probably nobody ever comes down the street. Would you?"

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