Alarm is raised as tyre dump stockpiles grow: Jonathan Foster reports on increasing concern over a lack of policy for disposing of used tyres

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They will burn for nine months, spew a noxious cloud 32 miles wide, poison water and drive thousands of people from their homes. The 8 million tyres on Hibaldstow airfield have been dumped out of sight, but their potential for combustion is beginning to occupy minds.

Humberside fire service has completed a fat dossier with detailed evacuation and firefighting plans. County council waste regulation officers, despairing of 'the lack of a national policy on tyre disposal', have warned the Government about a proliferation of dangerous dumps.

A further 25 million tyres will be discarded in Britain this year. Many will add to stockpiles - often illegal - which Whitehall has yet to finish counting.

'The Government doesn't want to know,' said Mike Medden, who has been bluntly telling Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment. The island of tyres at Hibaldstow is half a mile long, 55 yards (50m) wide and 13ft (4m) high. Mr Medden bought the lot for pounds 1, invested pounds 350,000 in specialist shredding machinery, and expected last October to create a profitable business making fine rubber 'crumb'. Applications for recycled rubber remain as wide as the horizons of the former RAF bomber station near Brigg. 'But we're going out of business,' Mr Medden said. 'Prices of crumb have fallen by 57 per cent to pounds 100 a tonne. We can't compete with subsidised imports, especially from Germany - 6,000 tonnes of recycled tyre rubber which the Government allows to be dumped here are from Germany.'

Most British used tyres are collected by reputable companies. Some are exported for further road use. Others are re- moulded. Many are buried on landfill sites. But landfill sites are filling up and, for every scrupulous tyre company, there are many attracted to cheaper, no- questions-asked disposal techniques. Councils have powers to ask tyre dealers what happened to stocks which have been disposed of, but too few staff to police the industry.

'All existing legitimate disposal routes are overloaded, with the result that millions of tyres are annually disposed of illegally,' waste regulation officers in Yorkshire and Humberside reported in June.

'Speculative accumulation' of tyres on stockpiles across the country has been waiting for breakthroughs in recycling technology which could make the owners rich, the report said. This 'unrealistic perception' has been made worse by another miscalculation - that tyres were valuable as fuel. 'Current markets for recycled rubber are too small to consume the backlog.'

If the Hibaldstow plant closes, Britain will be left with little tyre recycling capacity until the opening of a tyre-fuelled power station in Wolverhampton next year. Even that will not be able to consume the backlog of tyres which has been building stealthily, a black economy which has produced private fortunes and public expense.

The Hibaldstow dump is a typical example. A company began accepting tyres without local authority approval. A licence was subsequently granted because, the council said, that way some control might have been possible. Mr Medden reckons an average of 50p was paid to dump each of the 8 million tyres - a plausible revenue of pounds 4m. The company eventually folded. Its breaches of the law brought the maximum fine - pounds 2,000.

Open, empty country in Humberside, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire is especially attractive for illegal or speculative dumps. So was Hampole quarry, a disused limestone pit near Doncaster where waste regulation officers have struggled against successive waves of illegal dumping.

Mr Medden's attempts to find a market solution to tyre disposal problems have been commended by Brian Taylor, Humberside waste regulation officer. Mr Taylor searches government legislation in vain for the means to enforce the principle that 'the polluter pays'.

In Germany, the polluter pays 72p - a compulsory levy paid by vehicle owners on each new tyre, spent on recycling and responsible for the cheap crumb undercutting Mr Medden's business. 'In Britain, the poll tax payer pays, not the polluter,' Mr Taylor said.

(Photograph omitted)