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In Youngstown, a downtown tire pyrolysis plant is called ‘recipe for disaster’

An old coal-to-steam plant in Youngstown is falling apart. Piles of brick and and concrete accumulate on the ground. Sheet metal covers holes in the building's roof.
James Bruggers
Inside Climate News
SOBE Energy Solutions' site for its proposed tire pyrolysis chemical plant that would make synthetic gas to burn and produce steam for heating and cooling some downtown Youngstown, Ohio, buildings. Marketed as a green solution to waste and energy problems, critics view it as a source of unwanted toxic air emissions and a fire or explosion risk next to a large jail, student housing and other buildings.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Stacks of red bricks and piles of busted concrete lie on the ground next to what remains of a century old coal-to-steam plant in this city’s reinvented downtown. Sheet metal covers large holes in the roof. Rusted pipes extend into the air. Front-end loaders and backhoes stand at the ready to continue to demolish and dig away at a remnant of the region’s robust industrial history.

Tapping into 19th century technology, the plant long provided steam through a network of underground tunnels to heat downtown buildings.

A new owner, a businessman named David Ferro from the Columbus suburbs, and his company, SOBE Energy Solutions, have visions of restoring that service and doing a whole lot more—but this time, using as much as 88 tons of old tires a day as fuel.

His plan would deploy another old but reimagined technology—pyrolysis, a centuries-old process for decomposing materials at high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment that’s been used for making tar from timber for wooden ships and coke from coal for steelmaking during the last century.

The SOBE proposal for loading shredded tires, which can contain as much as 24 percent synthetic polymers, a type of plastic, into a sealed chamber at high temperatures is based on a proprietary version of pyrolysis developed by another Ohio-based company, CHZ Technologies.

The proposal is among the latest controversies in the United States over what the chemical industry calls “advanced recycling,” often meaning some type of pyrolysis or a related technique, gasification, to turn plastic waste into energy or feedstocks for new plastics.

While promising to limit its Youngstown plant to using only shredded tires as a feedstock, Ferro describes a broader business plan that would add plastic and electronic waste to tires at as many as 30 other “waste-to-energy” plants in the United States and overseas, including one in Lowellville, Ohio, eight miles southeast of Youngstown.

For SOBE, it all starts at the old coal steam plant in Youngstown, where the company is poised to get the air pollution permit it needs from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Ohio EPA will hold a public meeting and hearing Aug. 10 in Youngstown on the draft permit for the facility.

“Our strategy was, let’s get rid of the coal,” Ferro said, describing what he called 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 Ferro has encountered spirited opposition, including local environmentalists, neighborhood watch leaders, the president of the Youngstown City Council and a recently retired high-ranking fire department official and hazardous materials expert, all of whom are looking for ways to stop the plant.

Like national environmentalists and academic experts, they do not view pyrolysis as clean energy and are concerned about toxic air emissions. They 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.

A portrait of a retired fire chief. He wears a black polo and gold watch and leans against an old metal railing.
James Bruggers
Inside Climate News
Retired Youngstown Fire Department Battalion Chief Silverio Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert, sees too much risk for the city or state to allow a proposed chemical pyrolysis plant for tires to be located in downtown Youngstown.

The old coal plant sits a couple blocks from a large jail, near new Youngstown State University student housing and the university’s football stadium, with a capacity of 20,000 people. A downtown amphitheater is nearby, as is a neighborhood with a substantial number of Black and low-income residents.

For Silverio Caggiano, who retired last year 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, his concerns come down to “location, location, location.”

“The SOBE plant is situated upwind so that the entire city and campus will be affected in a failure,” he said. “If this thing has a bad day, it’s going to contaminate the entire damn city.”

Debate Over Dioxins and Furans

In the past few years, the chemical industry has been working hard on marketing, public relations and lobbying efforts to promote advanced recycling and give so-called “chemical recycling” methods like pyrolysis new life, branding them as part of an envisioned “circular economy,” one that reduces the need to tap virgin fossil fuels to make products and uses resources over and over again. But companies have struggled to move the technology into any sort of larger, commercial success.

In neighboring Indiana, for example, San Francisco-based Brightmark Energy, describes its Ashley plant as the “largest-scale pyrolysis facility in the world,” but it has been plagued by dangerous fires and spills during a two-year start-up phase, Inside Climate Newsreported in June. Brightmark seeks to turn plastic that people toss in their recycling bins into chemicals to make new plastic or fuel.

In January, U.S. government researchers found that pyrolysis and gasification could not even be considered technologies that are “closed-loop,” another term for a circular process. Pyrolysis and gasification typically require large amounts of energy and emit significant pollutants and greenhouse gases. And in May, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed its own Trump-era proposal, advanced by industry, to relax clear-air regulations on pyrolysis and gasification, which has been regulated as incineration for nearly three decades under the Clean Air Act.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, described these processes as having “a huge carbon footprint” and said that “a good number of the chemical recycling (operations) today actually don’t recycle.” Instead, she said, companies are turning waste plastic into “very dirty fuels that can be burned off. And that is obviously not the way we want to go with climate change.”

She spoke in the context of ongoing negotiations over a potential United Nations treaty to curtail plastic pollution and address a global plastics crisis, during which negotiators recently blocked an industry move to have pyrolysis and other “chemical recycling” techniques from being fully incorporated into important global technical guidelines for managing plastic waste, potentially minimizing the role of such processes in any future global plastics treaty.

Ferro, by contrast, describes the technology he plans to use as improved over other types of pyrolysis. While pyrolysis would typically create a dirty oil in addition to synthetic gas and a char waste product, he said the CHZ pyrolysis units will not make oil from super-heating shredded tires—just synthetic gas. He described its other byproducts as carbon black, a type of char, and steel, from the metal used in tires.

“I give credit to the inventors of the technology to look at a failure in traditional pyrolysis and find a way to improve it and to make it safe and environmentally friendly,” he said. “And that's what they've done.”

The emissions, he said, would be similar to those from burning natural gas, which he described as an improvement over the coal that has been burned at the site for decades.

Environmental advocates are glad coal burning and the smoke that came from the plant’s now-demolished stacks are now a memory, but they are deeply skeptical of Ferro’s clean-energy claims.

The draft air permit—which allows for as much as 11 tons per year of particulates emissions, 47 and 20 tons a year of lung-irritating oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, respectively, and up to a ton per year of hazardous air pollutants—exempts the plant from the more stringent federal restrictions that for decades have treated solid waste disposal in pyrolysis as incineration.

Shredded tires are not considered solid waste, and “the company has provided Ohio EPA written confirmation that the facility will not accept solid waste,” according to the draft permit. “Therefore the pyrolysis unit is not considered a solid waste incineration unit and is not subject” to the tighter emission rules, the agency concluded.

“They are permitted as a boiler, not an incinerator, and tires are considered a fuel,” said Teresa Mills, an organizer and former executive director with the Buckeye Environmental Network. “It’s not that this is not a problem” for air quality, she said. “It’s a huge problem, but they just regulated (the problem) out of existence. It’s putting green lipstick on a pig.”

SOBE Energy Solutions operates a temporary gas-fired boiler in a trailer on the downtown Youngstown, Ohio, site of its proposed tire pyrolysis chemical plant that would make synthetic gas to burn, producing steam for heating and cooling some downtown Youngstown, Ohio, buildings. Marketed as a green solution to waste and energy problems, critics view it as a source of unwanted toxic air emissions and a fire or explosion risk next to a large jail, student housing and other buildings.
James Bruggers
Inside Climate News
SOBE Energy Solutions operates a temporary gas-fired boiler in a trailer on the downtown Youngstown, Ohio, site of its proposed tire pyrolysis chemical plant that would make synthetic gas to burn, producing steam for heating and cooling some downtown Youngstown, Ohio, buildings. Marketed as a green solution to waste and energy problems, critics view it as a source of unwanted toxic air emissions and a fire or explosion risk next to a large jail, student housing and other buildings.

Environmental advocates are especially concerned with the potential for releases of dioxinsor furans, particularly hazardous air pollutants even in very low concentrations.

Ferro has told the community that proprietary technology “completely” neutralizes dioxins, and a Department of Energy study of the CHZ pyrolysis technology makes a similar assertion.

But that study used fiberglass and composite materials as feedstocks, not tires, or plastic, and the study’s lead author, in an interview, made no such claim. Daniel Coughlin, formerly with the American Composites Manufacturers Association but now with the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said that an assessment of environmental performance of the CHZ pyrolysis process, including its dioxin emissions, was not part of their review. Any references to dioxins or furans mentioned in the report came from other work done by the developers of the technology themselves, he said.

“We did not investigate dioxins or furans,” he said. "We were trying to understand economic viability.”

Hazmat Expert: “Recipe for Disaster”

Youngstown shed thousands of steel mill jobs in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has been struggling to recover ever since. The downtown doesn’t bustle like it did in the 1960s, when the city’s population, now 59,000, topped 160,000.

But downtown Youngstown has scrubbed off the grime left on the old landmark buildings by the notorious thick smoke that once filled the air. It’s also added new development including student housing, bars and restaurants, and turned once blighted industrial brownfields into parklands where, late last month, 20,000 people attended a Kid Rock concert.

In her press conference in May, Andersen, the UNEP executive director, also noted that globally, “there is a justice dimension” with chemical recycling; the plants tend to be located near the poorest people “and those who have the least voice in society.”

That would bear out in Youngstown, too.

Using an environmental justice screening tool from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio EPA found the area within three miles of the proposed pyrolysis plant was in the 80th percentile or higher nationally for various kinds of air pollution including particulates, ground-level ozone and toxic air contaminants, and for proximity to hazardous waste facilities.

The screening tool also identified the area as being among the poorest in the country. Census data shows the poverty level for the entire city at about 35 percent, which is nearly three times the national average.

Critics of the tire pyrolysis plant said they believe the development will take the city in the wrong direction—backward—while risking the health and safety of people who live and work downtown, and in the nearby neighborhoods.

“I don't see where it's going to help us economically in any type of way,” said Valeria Goncalves, a community leader and officer of the Love Your Neighbor Block Watch, a neighborhood association on the North Side of Youngstown.

“I can't understand, and the people from this area are trying to understand, why they would want to do that,” she said. “Why would you put a factory right there that’s going to do chemicals?”

On a drive through the city’s North Side, the population loss was evident from rows of vacant lots where millworker homes once stood.

“I’m a cancer patient,” explained Akim Lattermore, after mowing the lawn covering one such lot near her home. She ran her hands across the front of her shirt, then pulled it tight, to make a point. “I don’t have my breasts anymore. I still have my (chemotherapy) port in. I am already prone to cancer.”

Why, she asked, would she want more toxic chemicals in the area?

Nearby, Daryl Harvey, another Love Your Neighbor Block Watch leader, was also mowing but stopped to chat. A Black Lives Matter sign was in the front yard under a large hanging basket of purple petunias. “I don’t see how this is not going to be detrimental to my health down the road,” Harvey said of the SOBE plant.

He said he’s lived in this home for 20 years, and the SOBE proposal comes as the neighborhood has been turning a corner. “We’ve just started getting families back with children,” he said. “We’re trying to keep up our neighborhood. We don’t want it here.”

Sue Raney, a Walmart cashier walking home after work, recalled the Norfolk Southern Railway chemical disaster in February, about 20 miles away in East Palestine. The fire set by first responders to burn off chemicals exposed local residents to toxic fumes and smoke. Chemical spills contaminated surface waters. She said she worried about something similar happening at the SOBE plant. “I hope it doesn’t,” she said.

For his part, Ferro said he’s heard those fears before and called them unfounded. “I think it's irresponsible to take a tragedy that occurred in a nearby area and draw some similarities to what we're doing, considering the fact that we're not transporting hazardous chemicals,” he said.

But Caggiano, the retired fire department battalion chief and longtime member of the state’s Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction Technical Advisory Committee, said all it would take to produce a fire or an explosion at the plant would be a mistake by a plant operator or a breakdown of equipment that allows some oxygen into the super-heated chamber where tires are turned into gas. Shredded tires stored on the property could also catch fire, sending black toxic smoke into the air, he warned.

“These things are so difficult and so complex to operate,” Caggiano said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Plant Backers Trust the Regulators

Ferro said his project could create about 30 jobs and believes he has a lot of support in the community. But most business or government officials involved in economic development have so far remained noncommittal, at least in public. Kim Calvert, the senior vice president of marketing for the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, said her boss, chamber president Guy Coviello, didn’t know enough about the proposal to comment.

Mayor Jamal Tito Brown declined a request for an interview or for comment, as did Nikki Posterli, his chief of staff and director of community planning and economic development for the city, according to a mayor’s spokeswoman.

Lowellville Mayor James Iudiciani is supportive. His village received $1 million in Appalachian Regional Commission funds to build a road into a planned industrial park where Ferro’s company plans a separate plant to shred tires and later turn them, plastic and electronic waste into energy.

“It’s all about job creation,” Iudiciani said.

And trust.

“As long as they get the permitting and it’s not harming anything, I am 100 percent for it,” he said. “We have to rely on those regulatory folk” at Ohio EPA, he added.

Ferro is already providing steam to one Youngstown State University building from a temporary natural gas boiler at the former coal steam plant in Youngstown, said John P. Hyden, the university’s associate vice president for facilities and support services.The university will expand that for steam heating and cooling for as many as 45 buildings once the pyrolysis plant in downtown Youngstown is constructed and operating, Hyden said.

Ferro “has presented to us what looks like a really good solution, both economically and environmentally,” Hyden said. “Whether he’s right or not, I cannot say. Best I can tell, he has a green light and I feel I need to trust those governmental agencies that oversee all that.”

The United States produces about 274 million scrap tires a year, and about 27 percent of those are turned into fuel, typically burned in cement kilns, pulp and paper mills or power plants, according to the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association. Less than 1 percent end up at pyrolysis plants, said Kim Kleine, spokeswoman for the association.

Pyrolysis plants require “large amounts of capital, sophisticated processing and quality control, technical sales, and consistent material flows,” she said. “Only a few companies have had the skills to succeed at industrial scale end-of-life tire pyrolysis up to this point,” but those that do are considered “leaders in the circular economy,” she added.

Julie Peller, a chemistry professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, who has been looking into other pyrolysis plants in the region, said she sees a pattern of little known or new companies pushing their variety of the technology, using a combination of confusing terms and vague environmental claims like circularity and recycling.

“What seems to be happening is that these companies are convincing, whether it’s a state or municipality, that these processes have been well vetted,” Peller said. “From what I can tell in the literature, that is not the case, especially when you start mixing waste materials.

“We really need to get away from burning carbon based fuel,” she said.

Critics Push Mayor for Zoning Challenge

But in Ohio, a lack of trust between energy providers and community leaders has many of the opponents of the proposed Youngstown pyrolysis plant worried, given industry’s influence over politicians in the state.

Energy policy became fodder for a $60 million bribery scandal involving FirstEnergy that has sent the state’s former speaker of the House, Larry L. Householder, to prison for 20 years. And Gov. Mike DeWine recently signed legislation that declared natural gas “green energy” and gave counties effective veto power over new wind and solar projects.

Some of the opposition to the SOBE plant has roots in the Youngstown version of the Occupy Wall Street movement of more than a decade ago. Lynn Anderson, a retired graphic artist, and Susie Beiersdorfer, a retired geology professor, have also helped coalesce local opposition, forming a loose knit group, SOBE Concerned Citizens of Youngstown, with help from a group of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent and former presidential candidate, and other progressives.

Anderson and Beiersdorfer had been previously involved in efforts to keep fracking out of Youngstown through a local community bill of rights ballot initiative, which failed after multiple tries.

When the two community organizers first learned about the pyrolysis plant proposal in late 2021, Anderson said she talked to a city council member who told her there was no role for the city in scrutinizing the proposal and that “‘the state regulates pollution.’”

“So that's when I started rallying everybody, getting them active,” said Anderson.

“I feel this one we can win,” she said, in part because she does not see SOBE being funded by deep-pocketed fossil fuel billionaires, like Charles Koch or his late brother, David. “And, we aren’t getting totally censured,” she said.

Two women stand in a garden, in front of blooming pink and white flowers.
James Brugger
Inside Climate News
Susie Beiersdorfer and Lynn Anderson came together to fight environmental and health harms from a fracked gas boom in northeast Ohio and nearby Pennsylvania more than a decade ago, and are now trying to block a proposed tire pyrolysis plant planned for downtown Youngstown. They are leaders in the group SOBE Concerned Citizens of Youngstown.

Anderson and Beiersdorfer printed fliers, built a website, secured an environmental justice grant that paid for a billboard, made yard signs, rallied volunteers to help canvas neighborhoods, attended city council committee meetings and organized their own informational meetings.

Anderson said the group is also considering litigation should the state EPA grant SOBE its air permit.

They also collected more than 700 signatures on a petition and presented it to Mayor Brown in May, asking for help. The petition makes a case that the proposed use of the site as a tire gasification plant is not only a violation of existing zoning, but that granting a zoning change to allow the SOBE plant would constitute both a zoning violation and a violation of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Council President Thomas Hetrick, an ally, joined Anderson and several other area residents in the May meeting with the mayor, and asked him to send a letter to Ferro, detailing the zoning issues.

“We actually asked the mayor if he would sign it himself,” Hetrick recalled.

The mayor didn’t, saying he felt he needed to remain neutral, Hetrick said. “So he didn’t commit to anything.”

Hetrick said that he, too, was both affected and alarmed by the East Palestine rail disaster in February, saying he saw the dark cloud of smoke overhead, smelled the fumes and decided to stay mostly inside for a few days.

It’s clear to Hetrick that city action may be the only way to stop the pyrolysis plant, whether it’s through a zoning fight, or other means.

The council, he said, could pass some kind of ban on the plant, as other local jurisdictions in Ohio have banned solar farms. But, he said, that could trigger a backlash from the state’s fossil-fuel friendly state legislature, which could potentially vote to ban any local bans on pyrolysis plants.

Another option could be a temporary moratorium so that the city could study pyrolysis operations and their impacts before determining where in the city it might make sense to locate them, Hetrick said.

“It might be great technology,” he said. “I’m suspect, but I’m not going to ban new technology. I think there’s room to try it out. But I don’t think the place to do that is in the middle of the downtown of 60,000 people, adjacent to an historically African American neighborhood where there’s already so many environmental justice concerns. It’s just an awful place to try this out.”

James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of Inside Climate News’ National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville’s Courier Journal, where he worked as a correspondent for USA Today and was a member of the USA Today Network environment team. Before moving to Kentucky in 1999, Bruggers worked as a journalist in Montana, Alaska, Washington and California. Bruggers’ work has won numerous recognitions, including best beat reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, and the National Press Foundation’s Thomas Stokes Award for energy reporting. He served on the board of directors of the SEJ for 13 years, including two years as president. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Christine Bruggers.