The historic American Brewery on North Gay Street, one of the architectural marvels of bygone Baltimore, has found a new life -- as a dump for unwanted tires and a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Stray dogs lounge and scratch amid more than a hundred Goodyears, Armstrongs, Uniroyals and other tires that lie in the weed-choked courtyard -- discarded trash behind a discarded building in a discarded neighborhood.
The brewery site is one of dozens of illegal scrap tire dumps around the state of Maryland. Yesterday the Board of Public Works fixed a recycling fee at 40 cents a tire, as part of an effort to bring new energy to the state's tire-cleanup program.
The fee, the maximum authorized under legislation that passed the General Assembly last month, is a 60 percent reduction in the state's current $1-a-tire fee. The lower fee, which is estimated to bring in about $2 million a year, becomes effective July 1.
Under the revisions of the law, the Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund, which is financed by the fee, will be protected against raids for unrelated purposes.
Michael Kress, president of the Maryland Tire Dealers Association, said the law will bring welcome changes in the way the Maryland Department of the Environment uses the fund.
"They were spending it well enough. They just weren't spending it in the area we wanted them to spend it in," Kress said. "This kind of forces them to be a bit more frugal with it."
The legislation, which passed in the final 15 minutes of the legislative session, requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to accelerate its tire-cleanup program at a time when incentives for illegal dumping are increasing.
If the bill had not passed, the state's tire recycling fee would have been eliminated under a provision in the law adopted several years earlier. Kress said his association opposed the elimination of the fee and helped revive the bill when it appeared doomed in the House of Delegates.
Richard W. Collins, who heads the MDE's scrap-tire program, said the state has made significant progress in cleaning up tires. He said the number of scrap tires -- about 7 million when the fund was created in 1991 -- is down to "less than a million."
Collins gives much of the credit to increased citizen awareness of the environmental hazard posed by illegal tire disposal.
"As soon as they see the dumps, they call us," he said.
The brewery site is an inviting dumping ground because of its isolation. Many of the nearby blocks are scenes of urban blight -- with most of the houses boarded up. Collins said city and state officials have cleaned up the site several times -- only to have the tires come back.
The large, highly visible tire dumps that marred the landscape a decade ago are largely a thing of the past, Collins said. Of the 62 dump sites the state cataloged last year, two-thirds contained fewer than 1,000 tires.
But even a relatively modest-size dump can cause significant headaches.
Tires, which are composed largely of petroleum products, are highly flammable. Fires at tire dumps are expensive to fight because they can only be extinguished with a specialized foam. A fire at a dump in southern Anne Arundel County in March cost an estimated $12,000 to put out, Collins said.
Discarded tires are also a hazard because they hold rain in stagnant, sheltered pools -- creating an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Cy Lesser, mosquito control chief for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said tire dumps are such an efficient breeding ground for the Asian tiger mosquito that the species is unofficially known as the "Asian tire mosquito."
"Each tire quite literally can produce hundreds of mosquitoes a month," Lesser said, noting that the Asian species can transmit such diseases as Eastern equine encephalitis, yellow fever and dengue fever. He said discarded tires are one of the main reasons that mosquito complaints are on the rise in urban areas such as downtown Baltimore.
Illegal dumps also contribute to water pollution.
Jim Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said 1,500 tires dumped into Lower Beaverdam Creek in Prince George's County lodged against a tree and formed a makeshift dam that channeled water toward the bank, causing significant erosion and silt pollution.
The flooding brought the bank to within 5 feet of a CSX railroad track, Connolly said.
Connolly said he's not sure that 40 cents a tire will be enough to fund the cleanup, but he welcomed the provision that restricts the spending to tire removal.
"Any measures that will ensure that the money collected for tire disposal is used for tire disposal is a good thing," he said.
Tire dumpers can be prosecuted as criminals, but there are powerful economic incentives to take the risk. Kress said a hauler can collect several hundred dollars for hauling away a dealer's load of worn-out tires but has to pay to get rid of them legally.
"What do you think the next step is? The local creek," he said.
Kress said the state could face increased tire-dumping pressure because some companies that burn tires for fuel will not be accepting them this summer.
"There is a potential for a problem and I recognize that," Collins said. He noted that the department will be convening a task force this summer to study the state's tire disposal system.
Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a West Baltimore Democrat who helped revive the tire legislation after it was nearly killed in a House committee, is suggesting a bounty system under which haulers would be paid when they deliver the tires to an authorized disposal site.
"We should be paying the people a dollar to bring the tires to us," Oaks said.
Collins said the task force will study the possibility of starting a bounty program.