When I walked down Railway Avenue in Alvo, Nebraska, it was a crisp May morning. The road runs alongside a “recycling” business and is less a road than a path, really–two unpaved grooves overgrown with wildflowers and weeds that already reached waist high. The wooded slope on the south side of the road was full of birdsong and blossoming that would have been calming and peaceful were it not for what lay to the north: an expanse of scrap tires stretching over 350 feet along the road, with peaks reaching 30 feet high.
This is Alvo’s sea of tires. It is illegal. It arose over just the last few years and now threatens environmental catastrophe only ten miles as the crow flies from Lincoln. It sprang up in plain sight, in a Nebraska village on the brink of collapse, and it shows us how failures of governance in small towns can lead to significant environmental risk beyond their boundaries.
Tires Are a Global Problem
Tires suck for the planet. We all use them—even if you ride a bike to work and eat organic vegetables from the co-op, you are reliant on tires. The natural components of tires often originate in exploitative corporate plantations in Africa, where they create ecological disaster and fund civil war. The manufacturing process, which blends natural rubber with synthetics and other substances, impregnates each personal vehicle tire with about five gallons of oil. The result is a resource-gobbling, ultra-strong, fuel-dense tire that will take a human lifetime to decompose. As a country, we dispose of a few hundred million of them per year, about one per person.
There are no great answers for tire disposal. “Recycling” old tires sounds much greener than it is, often resulting in surface covers that simply end up in a landfill a few years later or leech toxins into the community areas where they are placed. Shredding tires and burying them in a landfill is probably the best bet, as it contains the environmental threat in a concentrated space. One thing we know for sure, though, is that the very worst thing you can do with waste tires is pile them in a gigantic open-air heap.
Piles of tires pose a range of threats. They leak neurotoxins and carcinogens into the soil, where the chemicals enter nearby waterways. They collect water and breed mosquitoes. And most dramatically, they pose a serious fire danger.
Tire pile fires are disastrous. They are extremely difficult to put out because they burn very hot, run on the abundant fossil fuel embedded in the tires, are not responsive to normal methods of firefighting, and produce dangerous, poisonous smoke. The biggest fire in U.S. history was in 1983, when seven million tires burned for nine months in Winchester, Virginia. The Environmental Protection Agency considers tire fires a significant threat, as do state governments, which have enacted special regulations to prevent tire fires and mitigate their danger. Nebraska, like many states, seeks to prevent tire fire disasters by regulating how many tires can accumulate on a property and how they must be arranged.
Our state learned this lesson the hard way. In 2002, a tire recycling company in Nebraska City was the scene of a particularly nasty fire. EnTire Recycling was using four old grain silos as storage bins for shredded waste tires. Just after midnight on January 23, 2002, Nebraska City’s Volunteer Fire Department responded to a call after something caused one of the silos to ignite, probably an overheated metal part on the conveyor belt that dumped the shreds into the silo. From there the fire easily spread from silo to silo.
On the first day of the fire, firefighters doused a silo with liquid nitrogen to try to deprive it of oxygen. This, however, seems to have only encrusted the top of the burning tire pile, while tires deeper down continued to burn and build up pressure inside the silo. That afternoon, the silo exploded. Thirteen firefighters were injured.
Over the following days, volunteer fire fighting forces from nearby communities pitched in, creating round-the-clock shifts of six hours, during which they mostly just kept the fire from spreading. It wasn’t until a private, out-of-state company that specializes in oil field fires was brought in by the Environmental Protection Agency that the fire was extinguished—eleven days after it started. Almost 400 million gallons of contaminated water had to be transported offsite for treatment.
The number of tires in the fire at EnTire was less than what has accumulated in Alvo.
The Alvo Sea of Tires
Several years ago, Beth Rose applied for a permit to be a tire hauler. Working with Larry Langer of Alvo, the two would pick up tires from eastern Nebraska, shred them, and take them to the Butler County landfill in David City. The money made here is in the difference between the amount tire haulers charge auto businesses to pick up old tires and the amount it costs to dispose of them at the landfill. Financially, there is an incentive to accumulate, as that maximizes money in and minimizes money out.
According to state law, tire haulers must log all incoming tires and record where they disposed of all of them. Tires are such a cleanup issue that the state wants to know funding is on hand for cleanup in case the hauler doesn’t properly dispose of them. So tire haulers are not allowed to accumulate tires on their property unless they provide financial assurance of $1.25 per “personal tire equivalent”—that is, for every 20 pounds of tire material or tires of other sizes. Even with this assurance, the tire hauler has to show that over the calendar year they recycled or disposed of 75% of the tires they began the year with—all of this is to prevent an unmanageable hazard from forming.
In addition, the state fire code includes specific provisions for tire piles. Piles have to be kept small and short, with dirt berms and wide paths between them to prevent fires from spreading and to allow access by fire fighters. The tire collection facility has to have lighting around the perimeter, a fence enclosing it, and adequate hydrants nearby.
At first things seemed to work as planned for Rose and Langer, and they were generally clearing out the tires they had taken to a location in Elmwood. But then they began collecting the tires in Alvo and the numbers started to climb. In 2019 Rose reported a huge jump: the junkyard in Alvo now had the equivalent of over 239,000 tires on hand. The two explained that their shredder had malfunctioned, causing the backlog. (Notably, a malfunctioning shredder was the cause of a massive tire fire in Colorado in 2020.) This caught the eye of the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE), as the accumulated number far surpassed the financial assurance Rose and Langer had recorded with the state.
NDEE and Rose and Langer had a number of exchanges following this discovery, with the Alvo business increasing its financial assurance but still falling far short, and NDEE conducting a site visit in July of 2020 that also revealed flagrant fire code violations.
When NDEE visited the site a second time, in February 2021, Rose estimated that only about 178,000 tires were on site, and Langer said he thought the higher estimate from 2019 that had triggered scrutiny had been overly high and was an employee’s fault. The NDEE inspectors said they were going to walk around and get some photos to calculate how many tires were on hand. Rose and Langer responded that underneath all the tires were piles of dirt and equipment—seeming to suggest that they had dumped tires on top of other things and therefore the entire mass of the pile shouldn’t be considered tires.
When NDEE finished their calculations, they concluded that the sea of tires covered over 66,000 square feet and that it contained up to the equivalent of 367,000 tires. The business had supplied financial assurance for only 160,000. In April, the state ordered the Alvo business to reduce the sea of tires to 160,000, giving them some benchmarks to meet before a September 2021 compliance deadline. To be clear: if Langer and Rose comply with NDEE, they can still have 160,000 tires on the property.
As for fire risk, the Alvo sea of tires could hardly be worse:
1. Tire piles are supposed to be no larger than 50 feet by 50 feet, and no higher than 12 feet tall. 45-foot paths for fire vehicles are supposed to run between the piles. In some cases piles are allowed to be larger, but then they are supposed to be separated by much longer distances from each other and from any nearby structures. The Alvo sea of tires is a giant mass with a base that is over 350 feet long. Some of its peaks are over twice the normal fire code limit. There are no paths through the pile.
2. The site is supposed to be contained by a chain link fence at least six feet high. On the inside, a clear margin of 50′ should lie between the fence and the tire pile. The Alvo sea of tires is piled right up against a broken corrugated steel wall. Not only is there no berth within this wall, there is no way for fire vehicles to even navigate the narrow, overgrown road that runs against it.
3. Waste tire facilities are supposed to be clear of debris, trash, weeds, and grass. Operators are supposed to take precautions around any potential ignition sources. The Alvo sea of tires has clear overgrowth, and satellite images show heavy equipment running within the pile.
4. The business office is quite close to the sea of tires, and so are two houses. One house belongs to Beth Rose, but the other, about 200 feet downhill from the tire pile, belongs to a young family that has complained at the village board meeting about the business, which they worry poses a danger to their young children. State fire code says that waste tire facilities should take topography into consideration because of oil and runoff–the family with young children lives directly downhill from the pile, and it’s likely that runoff has already been draining onto their property, not to mention what would happen if millions of gallons of water were poured on a tire fire uphill from their home.
The current order against Rose and Langer requires them to reduce the number of tires by September–a year and a half after the excess was noticed by NDEE–and does not specifically direct them to address fire code violations.
In the midst of all this, in February of 2021, Rose applied to renew her tire hauler permit and was approved by the state on condition she meet the schedule set out by the state. NDEE would not comment on this case but told me that they sometimes reissue licenses to noncompliant businesses because it’s a tool to get them in compliance. As I interpret this: if you take away the business of a tire hoarder, you have likely left the tire hoarder with no means to clean up the pile. By the time a crisis has arisen they need to keep income–that is, tires–flowing in order to stand a chance of getting it under control.
When I visited the sea of tires to see it for myself, I found it more depressing than I anticipated. I had expected to see a mess, but I was not prepared for how vast it was, how far back it stretched. My two-dimensional photos don’t convey it. I was not prepared for the tire smell to hit me when I was a half a block away. I was not prepared for the birds and wildflowers bursting with new life on the rim of an expanse of waste that could wipe them out as soon as an errant firework lands too close.
Ultimately, this is not a story about blaming two stupid people who mismanaged a business. It’s about why we don’t have adequate safeguards to keep two stupid people from frying up a town, poisoning wildlife, and blowing toxic smoke toward the two biggest cities in the state. It’s about the inability of a small village—whose population has dwindled like so many others in Nebraska—finding itself unable to govern.
How did the Alvo sea of tires get so out of control with nobody stepping in until the NDEE did, slowly, over the course of a year?
Failed Governance in a Dying Village
Alvo has never been a big town, but its population fell precipitously after the railroad pulled out in the 1950s. Today its residents number 132, five of whom are elected to the village board. (It has no mayor.) An American flag hangs in tatters on a pole outside the government building. A year ago board member Ben Glantz—who was also the town’s water operator and fire chief—was removed from his position after the state charged him with a felony for spending $18,000 of the Fire Department’s money on his mortgage and other personal expenses. Three years ago, the village clerk was convicted of embezzling $105,000 from village coffers, though residents think the amount was closer to $230,000. In 2019, the village alleged that its former board member and Rescue Squad chief David Morgan had seized a computer, bank account, and other assets belonging to the village, and that he claimed he and other volunteers personally owned the Rescue Squad assets. A state auditor who reviewed the village’s complaint determined that the village’s bookkeeping was in such disarray that some of these claims were impossible for the auditor to resolve. The village is still embroiled in a costly lawsuit with Morgan scheduled for trial in November, though it just voted to terminate its lawyer. Today Alvo does not have a fire department. Or a rescue squad. Or a post office. Or a school. Its own mailing address is a PO box in Eagle, Nebraska, six miles away, which also covers the town’s emergency response. The village is so broke that the board chair, Robin LaPage, said that if the lawsuit with the Morgans goes the wrong way the town will be finished and will have to unincorporate and go back to the county.
One of Alvo’s board members is Larry Langer, co-owner of the Alvo sea of tires.
At the last village board meeting, several arguments erupted. Resident Neal Wilhelm, who was himself critically injured in a fire in Alvo in 2013, demanded to know when Langer was going to clean up his tires, and Langer repeatedly refused to talk about it because the complainers had brought it up at board meetings instead of “talking to him like a man.” The residents complained about fire code violations, which Langer vehemently denied. Some of the residents accused Langer of illegally running for the board because he either doesn’t live in Alvo or is living in the junkyard, which is zoned for industrial use. Langer accused some of them of lying about him and reporting him to authorities.
An Eagle Fire Department officer, who was in attendance, said that if a fire erupted in the tires there “is no way” they could put it out, and that Alvo would need to be evacuated until an out-of-state agency could extinguish the fire. (Side note: an Eagle Fire Department officer actually did report Langer to authorities, the NDEE case file shows.) Some residents demanded to know why the village was not enforcing its own ordinances against the sea of tires. LaPage pointed to the fear of a lawsuit, even a frivolous one, which she said Langer had threatened and could spell the end of the town. She mentioned that a town planning commission had recently formed to investigate the matter.
The board then moved on to other business—Langer and his allies on the board voted to terminate the village’s attorney, leaving them with no lawyer, because the attorney had become expensive. The attorney said that his bills had increased because he had been forced to write out lengthy memos explaining basic matters of law to the board, including that local ordinances are subordinate to state law. “Good luck to you,” he said as he left. Langer and his allies then moved to have the village reinstate the defunct and legally disputed Fire Department and Rescue Squad. The Eagle Fire Department officer left in frustration and disgust after failing to persuade the Langer contingency that it was a financial and logistical impossibility for their collapsing village to redevelop its own first responder services.
The meeting ended with little resolved, beyond firing its attorney. The sea of tires continues to exist in violation of village code, to the chagrin of many in the town. A trial date for the Rescue Squad case creeps closer. The village still lacks a full accounting of its finances and what led it to the brink of ruin. No significant new revenue is on the horizon.
A couple short blocks from the village building, a house flies a tattered Trump 2020 flag. Another was recently using a Trump flag as a curtain and had a sign in the yard that said “Pro America, Anti Biden.” Around the corner from the sea of tires, one of Langer’s allies on the board flies a Gadsden flag: “Don’t Tread on Me.”
There are plenty of treads on the village of Alvo—over a quarter million tires worth. The village, seemingly so worried about big government, is broke from plunder from within and incapable of enforcing basic ordinances for the safety of its residents. It can’t fight fires. It can’t run ambulances. It can’t retain legal assistance. If the business of one its board members goes up in black toxic smoke, threatening health for miles around—including Eagle and Lincoln—it will be that big bad Biden EPA that extinguishes the fire, foots the bill, and pays to clean up the mess.
We live in a time when small town populations are dwindling, faith in expertise is corroding, and science-denying state governments are eroding environmental protection. As we can see in Mead and Alvo, small towns are extremely vulnerable to becoming sites of rapacious environmental abuse. The towns lack the money, power, and outside eyeballs to protect themselves from both external (Mead) and internal (Alvo) opportunists. The resulting disasters imperil every living thing for miles around.