A Plant Proposed in Youngstown, Ohio, Would Have Turned Tons of Tires Into Synthetic Gas. Local Officials Said Not So Fast

The mayor and city council have enacted a one-year moratorium after the EPA raised multiple environmental justice concerns, from toxic air to hazardous waste.

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The proposed site of SOBE Thermal Energy Systems' tire pyrolysis chemical plant in Youngstown, Ohio. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News
The proposed site of SOBE Thermal Energy Systems' tire pyrolysis chemical plant in Youngstown, Ohio. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News

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Officials in Youngstown, Ohio, have dealt a setback to a company’s plan to build and operate a recycled tire waste-to-energy plant near the center of the city and adjacent to a neighborhood of predominantly Black residents, enacting a one-year moratorium on such industrial processes. 

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown signed the ordinance Dec. 26.

The developer, SOBE Thermal Energy Systems, has proposed turning discarded tires, plastic waste and used electronics into energy at 30 locations, starting with the Youngstown plant situated next to a jail, a Youngstown State University dormitory and a neighborhood where there’s already environmental justice concerns.  The plant would turn the tires into a synthetic gas to be burned to produce steam for  heating and cooling buildings. 

But those plans in Youngstown have stirred a robust opposition from local and state environmental and citizens groups, and pushback from some national groups, including Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit activist organization based at Bennington College in Vermont.

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City Council President Thomas Hetrick said on Tuesday he’s pleased the city will get a year to study a full range of concerns raised by the community, having raised the need for such a moratorium in an interview last July. 

“This gives us time to figure out the next steps, and to figure out what the impacts are to the city,” he said Tuesday. 

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has been reviewing a key draft permit for the facility, and Hetrick said “the fear was that if it granted the permit (to SOBE), construction could start immediately. We didn’t really want that to happen.”

SOBE owner David Ferro, who lives in the Columbus suburbs, did not immediately return a telephone call or email seeking comment on the city’s action and his company’s plans.

The company’s plan would deploy an old but reimagined technology called pyrolysis, a centuries-old process for heating materials at high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment that has been used to make tar from timber for wooden ships, coke from coal for steelmaking and, most recently, oil and synthetic gas from plastic. 

Advocates insist pyrolysis, one type of what the chemical industry calls “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, is not incineration. But critics argue that heating tires and plastics to such high temperatures that they become oils and gases is a form of incineration. They note, too, that the Environmental Protection Agency, in its regulations, considers pyrolysis as incineration.

With advanced recycling proposals popping up across the country, environmental advocates consider pyrolysis at the very least to be a high-heat, energy-intensive, carbon-emitting manufacturing process mostly used to make new fossil fuels. 

Representatives of Beyond Plastics said they were not aware of any other local jurisdiction in the country to block pyrolysis with a moratorium. 

“This is really groundbreaking,” said Jess Conard, Appalachia director of Beyond Plastics. “To put something like a tire or plastic or waste pyrolysis facility there is egregious for the environment and the health of the people who have lived there and worked to build up the area.”

Conard, who lives in the nearby community of East Palestine, the location of a Norfolk Southern Railway chemical disaster in February last year, said Youngstown residents have been especially leery of the pyrolysis plant since then. 

“People in northeast Ohio are still very acutely aware of the problems that still persist for the residents of East Palestine,” she said. 

The SOBE proposal calls for using 88 tons of tires a day as fuel in a process designed to produce a synthetic gas. The gas would then be burned to  make steam for heating and cooling nearby buildings. Ferro has said it would also produce byproducts such as carbon black, a type of char, and steel, from the metal used in tires. Tires can contain as much as 24 percent synthetic polymers, a type of plastic. 

The plant would be located on the property of a former coal-steam plant, a couple blocks from the large jail, the dormitory and the Youngstown State  football stadium, with a capacity of 20,000 people. A downtown amphitheater is nearby. 

Region 5 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last fall wrote to state environmental regulators, expressing environmental justice and civil rights concerns posed by the plant.

“The neighborhoods around the facility have some of the highest levels in the state for many environmental justice indexes,” according to the agency’s environmental justice screening tool, EJScreen, the federal agency wrote. Those measures include ground-level ozone pollution, cancer risks from toxic air contaminants and proximity to hazardous waste, EPA wrote. “The population living in the area around the facility is significantly comprised of people of color, linguistically isolated households (Spanish language), those with low income, those with less than a high school education, and a high unemployment rate.”

Ferro has said he is coming to the city to clean up the mess left behind by the former owners of the old coal-to-steam plant with new, clean technology. 

“Our strategy was, let’s get rid of the coal,” Ferro said previously, describing what he said would be a $55 million project. “Let’s clean this disastrous area up. And let’s bring in a new technology that can enable us to clean our environment while producing clean burning energy at the same time, enabling us to provide lower cost energy to our community.”

But environmental advocates with groups like Buckeye Environmental Network, SOBE Concerned Citizens of Youngstown and Beyond Plastics argue it makes no sense to put what amounts to a chemical plant, with its risks of fires and explosions, in a downtown that has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts. 

While promising to limit its Youngstown plant to using only shredded tires as a feedstock, Ferro has not made that promise for his other proposed “waste-to-energy” plants, including one in Lowellville, Ohio, eight miles southeast of Youngstown.

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The moratorium goes beyond a non-binding resolution opposing the plant as “dangerous” that was adopted by the Youngstown City Council in September. The new measure was written broadly enough to include all the fuels that the company has proposed using as feedstock at one time or another. 

The moratorium cites officials’ concerns about the “safety and well being” of Youngstown residents and mentions that other pyrolysis facilities have experienced explosions and fires. 

Among the plant’s opponents has been Silverio Caggiano, who retired in 2022 as a battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department and served for 18 years on a statewide committee of first responders working to safeguard Ohio from hazardous waste and terrorism threats. He has called the proposed plant a “recipe for disaster,” and has said it would be difficult to operate.

Other concerns that the city can now take time to explore are the environmental justice and civil rights issues raised by EPA, as well as whether local zoning rules should be applied, Hetrick said. “The idea is to take the next 12 months and investigate all of that, and what this means for pyrolysis in Youngstown,” he said.

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