Removal of old tires from Utah ponds counted as an environmental success

Lee Kay Ponds, a wetland in western Salt Lake City, is a great place to watch birds in winter. But it also has been an equally popular spot to dump old tires, furniture and appliances for people who can’t be bothered with paying tipping and disposal fees at the nearby landfill.

Last year, the ponds became overwhelmed with illegally dumped waste, which turned an important bird habitat into a toxic eyesore, and the problem only got worse after a TV news station aired a story about the tires.

The culprits have yet to be brought to justice, but Utah environmental and public health officials have removed the waste that was leaching chemicals into the water and posing a fire hazard. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality highlighted the Lee Kay cleanup Wednesday with the release of the state’s year-end “State of the Environment” report.

“It was a great example of groups coming together to solve the problem,” said Alan Moore, who oversees hazardous-waste management for DEQ.

The 100-plus page report provides a comprehensive look at the agency’s efforts to improve the environment while creating economic opportunity.

In other highlights:

• DEQ directed $200 million in grants and loans to various cities for upgrading wastewater treatment plants, including $77 million to Provo. Other recipients included Logan, South Salt Lake, Kane County, Salem and the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, Utah’s largest treatment plant serving much of Salt Lake County.

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that Logan’s airshed meets the air-quality standard for small particulates, or PM2.5. This is Utah’s first nonattainment area for PM2.5 to achieve attainment since the standard was tightened in 2006.

• The EPA removed Eureka Mills and the Davenport and Flagstaff smelters from Superfund listing after cleanups overseen by DEQ.

• DEQ’s Division of Drinking Water issued $17 million in assistance to many small communities to construct or fix drinking-water systems. Some had been compromised in the wake of last year’s busy wildfire season that burned communities’ watersheds.

• The agency facilitated cleanups at former industrial sites that are under development for residential or commercial use, such as the Sharon Steel site, Liberty Boulevard Apartments in Salt Lake City, Ogden Business Exchange, Centro Civico senior housing, View 72 and Alta Gateway.

“Our dedicated employees respond quickly and professionally to meet customer needs. They ensure that decisions are based on the best available science,” DEQ Executive Director Alan Matheson said. “Our employees put in the extra time and effort needed to achieve performance improvements because they know that today’s investment in innovation will pay big dividends tomorrow.”

Utah continues to be challenged with degraded air quality during wildfire season and wintertime inversions and with spreading algal blooms that can poison lakes during the summer. But Matheson emphasized his agency is taking steps to better understand these problems and to lower the volumes of pollutions entering streams and the atmosphere.

“We are addressing ozone issues in the Uinta Basin. Working closely with [the oil and gas] industry, we’ve developed some requirements to put in modern controls that minimize emissions,” Matheson said, “but at the same time we have streamlined our permitting process to ensure that it is faster and less costly.”

But several environmental groups contend the state is not acting fast enough to clean up Utah’s notoriously polluted air.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Center for Biological Diversity and other groups intend to file a lawsuit against the EPA as soon as Thursday, accusing it of not requiring the state to get into compliance with air-quality standards within time frames specified by law, FOX 13 reported.

“Our air-quality problems are not getting better, they’re getting worse,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Council member, told FOX 13. “And as our community is talking about new development, things like the inland port, which could be enormously polluting, how can we have those conversations when we haven’t dealt with the existing problem?”

For the annual report, Matheson personally highlighted the Lee Kay cleanup as one of last year’s success stories.

Because the ponds straddle the line separating West Valley City and Salt Lake City, they fell into a bit of a jurisdictional vacuum. So DEQ partnered with the Salt Lake County Health Department and the cities to get the job done last August, when county jail inmates were tasked to pull out the tires and trash. About 3,400 tires went to a recycler, but the 521 that were filled with mud went down the road to the landfill, along with 131 tons of trash.

The state tapped its tire fund, built from a $1 fee residents pay on every tire they replace, to cover 60 percent of the $5,000 it cost to recycle the tires. The Health Department covered the balance, plus another $5,200 to landfill the waste and $10,000 for labor, according to spokesman Nicholas Rupp. The cities' and state’s costs were unavailable.

Moore suspected people illegally dumped old tires and trash in the ponds after discovering it would cost them money to dispose of it the right way. He said this was the second or third time the site had been cleaned up.

Trash began reappearing not long after the cleanup, according to Rupp.

“We will continue to monitor the pond and clean it up the best we can,” Rupp said. “We are going to keep doing it for the dozens of sites in the county where there is illegal dumping. The two cities have committed to increase patrols at the pond. The cleaner we keep it, the better it stays.”

And anyone caught dumping can expect to be issued a citation, Rupp said.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.