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Fight brewing before Harford council over controversial Joppa tire pyrolysis plant

A community fight against a proposed controversial tire pyrolysis recycling operation in Joppa is headed to the Harford County Council, after a zoning hearing examiner ruled recently the use is not permitted under the county zoning code.

On Wednesday, lawyers for Auston Transfer and Processing LLC, filed a request for a final argument over the opinion before the council, which also sits as the County Board of Appeals. In that capacity, the council could overturn or modify the adverse opinion.

The council is in summer recess and is due to return to a regular schedule of three meetings monthly beginning Sept. 4.

In an opinion released July 19, Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe concluded the pyrolysis process proposed by Auston “is not materially similar to any existing use as permitted by the Development Regulations of Harford County, and is, therefore, prohibited.”

Auston plans to use the process, similar to petrochemical refining, to take shredded tires and place them under high heat to produce a combination of byproducts, including crude oil, carbon black, steel and synthetic gas. During a community information meeting held under the auspices of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Advisory Board last October, company representatives said about 35,000 tons of scrap tires would be processed annually.

The company owns six acres off Pauls Lane, where it has run a metals and tire recycling transfer business for 17 years. The property is in an industrial neighborhood, but there are residential areas nearby.

The pyrolysis process involves heating the shredded tires in a cylindrical reactor/furnace that has high heat – produced by electricity – but no oxygen, so the tires are essentially liquefied but not burned, according to Auston. An existing building on the property would house the reactor/furnace.

Area residents have opposed the use, citing potential environmental damage and increased truck traffic in the community. Some of the opponents appeared before the County Council in October, asking that the proposed use be stopped.

One opponent, Charles Lembach, of Joppa, filed a zoning appeal last year challenging rulings by Planning and Zoning Director Bradley Killian that the pyrolysis plant is allowed as a matter of right. In two earlier letters sent to Lembach, Killian said the proposed use is permitted and also denied a request to rule on whether Auston’s current activities are permitted, because they are in effect vested.

Killian concluded that even though recycling operations are specifically not permitted on properties zoned CI – commercial industrial – Auston’s proposed pyrolysis operation is permissible because it would fall under the category of “petroleum and coal products,” which he stated is permitted in the CI zone.

Lembach’s appeal, in which he was later joined by Seyed Mansour Mirjafary, was the subject of hearings before Kahoe, the hearing examiner, in April and May.

Lembach, reached Thursday, declined to comment on Kahoe’s opinion before the council’s Board of Appeals hearing, which he said will be Tuesday, Sept. 18.

“We’re still in process, so I don’t want to comment until the process is done,” he said.

In his scathing opinion, Kahoe lambasted the conclusions of Killian, the planning director, and his staff, writing: “Standing alone, it is no wonder that such a conclusory and superficially inexplicable decision provoked the filing of an appeal.”

The hearing examiner questioned if Killian “understood the process” upon which the director relied for his ruling, and concluded: “The director assumes an obligation which he does not have. Indeed, he exercises a power which he does not have. He can not legitimize a use that is not materially similar to an existing permitted use. It is incorrect as a matter of law for him to do so.”

“However, and perhaps more to the point,” the opinion continues, “the director was incorrect in finding that a pyrolysis plant is allowed by the Harford County Zoning Code. The primary purpose of the proposed pyrolysis plant is to destroy scrapped tires….[it] is not to manufacture products of petroleum and coal.”

Aegis staff member David Anderson contributed to this report.

avought@theaegis.com

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