From Tires to Cement


After nearly three years of frustrating delays, Lehigh Portland Cement Co. will begin a test program to burn used tires in one of its cement kilns.

If the large-scale trial works as planned, the Lehigh plant in Union Bridge will be able to reduce the amount of coal required to make cement and reduce noxious smokestack emissions at the same time. The process will also create a demand for discarded tires that no longer can be buried in landfills.

Lehigh has great hopes for this initiative. By using whole tires as fuel, Lehigh hopes to reduce its consumption of coal by as much as 20 percent. The company has not released any projections on savings, but the return must be sizable considering that it intends to invest as much as $2 million in special stoking equipment and employee training on this project.

Since the passage in 1991 of the Maryland Scrap Tire Recycling Act, which prohibits placing tires in landfills, the state has found itself inundated with old tires. Mountains of them have been growing across the state because spent tires are of little use.

If Lehigh is successful with its test, these stock

piles will become ready fuel sources. The company's demand for used tires should also reduce the number now discarded along roads, in streams and in Chesapeake Bay.

Despite the anticipated benefits of burning tires as fuel, Lehigh did not have an easy time in winning approval for the project. Residents of Union Bridge and the surrounding countryside were skeptical. They worried the tires would generate more pollution than coal or emit toxins not found in coal.

Once Lehigh received its regulatory approvals to haul, stockpile and burn tires, it found itself embroiled in a lawsuit over patents on the special machinery designed to place whole tires into the furnace. A Midwest cement company alleged that Lehigh's equipment infringed on its patents. The suit was settled a few months ago, giving Lehigh the opportunity to proceed.

Tire-burning efforts have been successful in other areas of the NTC country. Lehigh has been careful not to oversell the benefits of this endeavor. If the company's program works as well as some small test burns, it could be the answer to disposing of the ever-growing stock of used tires.

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