It's an environmental nightmare story decades old that may at long last be coming to an end.
Tens of millions of old tires dumped in a water-filled pit on the border of Hamden and North Haven. State enforcement actions. Legal dodges and protests. Court rulings. $1.4 million in fines. More lawsuits. Owner Joe Farricielli imprisoned. More court rulings, culminating in an apparently final state Supreme Court decision this month.
"It's been a long road," says Diane Duva, assistant director of the state environmental office responsible for closing down Farricielli's infamous "Tire Pond."
Duva says the state now expects to complete the final work on covering and providing protective drainage for the tire dump by the end of this year, marking an end point for a state enforcement saga that began in 1973.
Experts can only guess at how many used tires are buried in that abandoned clay pit beside the Quinnipiac River.
"We typically estimate 17 million," says Duva, "but it could be as much as 30 million."
"Nobody knows for sure," adds Kimberly Massicotte, an assistant attorney general who argued the state's side of the case in the most recent Connecticut Supreme Court hearing.
These days, used tires are recycled into all kinds of useful materials and products at plants here in Connecticut and elsewhere.
Back in the early 1970s, when Farricielli and his various companies used the property as a solid waste disposal site, a common solution was to dump old tires in a pile or a pit. But tires could sometimes catch fire, and the result could be an ugly environmental disaster as the burning tires sent out massive plumes of toxic smoke.
In 1992, a Georgia tire dump burned continuously for five weeks. A Virginia pile burned for nine months in the '80s. To reduce the fire risk, Farricielli and his companies dumped old tires in a water-filled pit.
Farricielli had been having problems with state environmental officials as far back as 1973. When he first began dumping used tires, in 1978, things got even worse. Throwing the tires in that pit made officials nervous about the potential consequences. "The number of tires was so enormous that it would have created a huge health risk [if they ever did begin to burn]," she explains.
"The illegal dumping at this site posed a long-standing and unacceptable threat to the environment and public safety," the current commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Daniel C. Esty, said recently.
The legal back and forth went on for years. State officials accused Farricielli (a former state lawmaker) of harassing state officials and interfering with cleanup efforts. Farricielli got a six-month jail sentence for violating court orders and injunctions.
The state started closing down the vast tire dump by covering it up with fill in 2007.
Duva says the reason the state decided to simply bury those old tires, rather than attempt to recycle them, was the incredible size of the dump and the massive cost of getting those tires out of the pit.
"It would have been a remarkable engineering achievement to get those tires out," Duva explains. "It had a very unstable surface," she says of the pit itself.
Commercial recyclers want the tires they take to be clean of dirt or other debris, which the Tire Pond tires definitely weren't.
(The closure of the Tire Pond is being paid for by fees charged to contractors bringing in fill from other construction sites.)
This final state Supreme Court ruling focused on an outfit called Modern Materials Corp., a tenant of one of Farricielli's operations. Modern Materials leased a 6.8 acre portion of the site in 2003 to recycle, screen and resell construction stuff like gravel, concrete and asphalt.
The state claimed that a portion of the property was needed to complete closure of the Tire Pond and to create a drainage system and sloping to prevent erosion. The people at Modern Materials argued they shouldn't be penalized for something Farricielli's companies had done.
But the Supreme Court dismissed Modern Material's appeal, and its ruling gives the company 60 days to get off the site after receiving state notification. Duva says that final notice should be going out in a couple of weeks, and that the final work on the site should be done by November.
The tires are already underground. "If you look at it today, it looks like any other [closed] landfill," Duva says. She says the environmental concerns from that underground mountain of tires will be no worse than with a capped and covered landfill.
Once it's all over and done, a lot of Connecticut officials will be breathing long-awaited sighs of relief.
State Attorney General George Jepsen says there's never been anything quite like the Tire Pond saga in Connecticut's long environmental history.
"We've seen people who tried to game the system before," he says, "but nothing of this duration or scope."