"MAKING GOOD ON A TIRE BILL"
by Terry Leveille
(reprinted from the December 2000 issue of Resource
--UPDATED APRIL 2001--
"All it took was an act of God," said
one pundit after California Governor Gray Davis signed into law the most
far-reaching scrap tire legislation in the state’s history. He was referring
to the freak lightning storm that set ablaze over five million tires on
September 22, 1999, and spurred the State Legislature into action. The process
culminated this fall with the deliverance of Senate Bill 876, a law increasing
the fee on new tires to $1 and dedicating $39 million over the next six years to
cleaning up illegal tire piles.
California, long touted as a leader in
environmental regulation, is a laggard when it comes to tire recycling. The
state’s first scrap tire law was passed in 1989, directing the California
Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) to promote tire
recycling markets by awarding grants and loans to private and public entities.
In addition, the Board was required to develop regulations for the safe storage
of scrap tires. Tire programs were to be funded with a 25-cent fee on scrap
tires left for disposal at tire stores.
Although California generates 30 million or more
scrap tires annually, and it landfills or stockpiles over 10 million, until
recently the 25-cent fee brought in barely $4 million a year. After subtracting
the costs for administration and fee collection, little more than $3 million was
left for tire pile remediation, enforcement, permitting, hauler and market
Previous attempts to beef up the state’s Tire
Recycling Fund with a fee of $1 or more were killed by anti-tax legislators and an unreceptive
Republican administration. A 1997 effort to include a 32-cent "recycling rebate" to end users who
diverted tires from landfills was also summarily dismissed. Not until 1999, when
Senator Martha Escutia (D-Montebello) launched her seemingly quixotic
legislative initiative, armed with an unflattering report on California tire
programs, did a full-fledged "omnibus" tire bill emerge—initially to
be financed with a $2 fee on the sale of new tires.
The State Legislature wasn’t thrilled. When the
Senator tried to move the bill out of a legislative committee in 1999, it was
met with yawns and quickly placed on the "Inactive File" for the rest
of the year. Then, as if commanded by a higher power, came the lightning bolt
from the sky.
The resulting fire near the town of Westley at
the state’s largest tire pile burned for 34 days, spewing an acrid black smoke
into the air that kept residents inside their homes and providing dramatic
television footage in Sacramento 70 miles to the north. Within days, special
hearings were hastily arranged in the immediate area and legislators heard an
outpouring of public wrath from residents. A subsequent class action lawsuit
attracted over 3,000 claimants who sought medical attention because of the
smoke. What looked like a bill headed for the scrap heap, SB 876 was given new
The 2000 legislative year in California, starting
three months after the Westley fire, was expected to be a good one for scrap
tire legislation, specifically SB 876. Nevertheless, new and used car dealers
about to lose their traditional exemptions from such fees vehemently opposed the
proposed $2 tire fee. Tire dealers also opposed the bill, arguing that in
addition to angering customers with the fee, the anticipated $60 million to $80
million annual revenue stream generated by SB 876 was far too rich for a state
agency that had fewer and fewer tires to clean up.
They had a point. While supporters touted the
bill as the answer to tire fires because it eliminates their fuel source, the number of illegal scrap
tires—once estimated at 20 million to 30 million—actually had shrunk to just one or two million. This was due
to the CIWMB’s aggressive scrap tire clean up program (11.2 million tires
remediated in 5 years); the Board’s threats of legal action against tire
stockpilers (5.8 million tires remediated); and, most importantly, three tire
fires (13.5 million tires consumed).
Despite tire dealers’ opposition, the bill’s
major potential roadblock remained California’s Governor, Gray Davis, who has
in the past been reluctant to sign bills that increase fees or taxes. After
months of negotiating with the Governor’s staff, however, Senator Escutia
agreed to lower the tire fee to $1, and the bill wriggled its way out of the
Democratic-controlled State Legislature on the final day of the session. A few
weeks later, the Governor signed SB 876, publicly extolling the need for
increased funding for cleaning up the tire fire residue from the Westley tire
fire and a previous fire in nearby Tracy.
The law, which went into effect on January 1,
includes the following: