Detroit Agenda: Are 50,000 Stray Tires Rolling Around Detroit?

April 22, 2014

By Travis Wright

Last year a provocative report from Bloomberg News alleged the city of Detroit was home to some 50,000 stray dogs. In the shadow of bankruptcy, the Detroit Dog-demic, as one outlet called it, was rung through the nightly news cycle by a seemingly infinite army of impassioned network television anchors. It was inescapable. You could hear them in your sleep.

The numbers were absurd. And have since been debunked. The story wasn’t what residents across the city were talking about. There was no cry for an official dog count. But there was plenty of talk about neighborhood blight particularly illegal dumping.

And that prompted some thinking about another stray beast, also found in packs, lurking in besieged corners of the city causing danger and discomfort: Tires.

So maybe it’s time for a tire count?

They don’t have a bark or a bite but tires are not just an eye sore, they’re treacherous. Just ask self-proclaimed “tire nerd” Audra Carson.

“I’ m the owner of De-tread," says Carson. "De-tread provides solutions to illegally dumped tires by coordinating community events, cleanup events, and, that fosters engagement and empowerment of Detroit residents.”

Carson is one of a handful of Detroiters wholly committed to eradicating habitual tire dumping, which she says is an issue affecting every district in the city. And, she says, the second biggest tire nerd in town is a friend who works with a community non-profit in southwest Detroit.

“And they do a lot of work in southwest Detroit as it relates to issues that negatively impact the environment," says Carson. "Sarah Clark is a program director there and she identified a site for us to go check out off West Vernor.”

Carson works out of a business incubator in Midtown Detroit called the Green Garage. She says the site is just a couple of miles away and not only typifies the tire issue but illustrates some solutions. We’re on our way.

“I work for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision," Clark says. "I’m the program director there.”

We meet in an abandoned lot at end of a street road that butts up against the railroad tracks. There are just a few houses on the block. One is boarded up. Nearby, teenagers play basketball in the street. The homes face a roofless, wall-less shell of a building that’s just big enough to hide hundreds of tires still waiting to be removed from a recent community-led clean-up.

There had been thousands.

Marina Chavez from Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision also joins us at the site. She says the organization became interested in the tire problem while she was investigating the connection between idling transport trucks and the prevalence of childhood asthma in southwest Detroit. Now she’s joined the fight against tires.

For Chavez the battle started right where we’re standing.

“One of these houses right here was a recipient family of the Healthy Homes program and the family has three children with asthma," says Chavez. "The parents informed me that this commercial vacant lot is a repeat offender site for trash, garbage, debris, commercial materials being dumped here, and tires.”

Chavez says the tires aren’t just ugly, they also provide an ideal breeding ground for all kinds of gross things, including mold, mosquitoes and all kinds of disease-carrying vermin.

Adding to that, D-Tread’s Audra Carson says the environmental implications are just as dire. Especially when it comes to leaching, when toxic chemicals dissolve into the ground water or air.

“So you have these tires, you know they sit here, they get rained on and they heat up and leach. So these off gases come up off these tires that have been sitting here," says Carson. "So that’s another form of a health risk that goes into the air.”

If you know Detroit you might be asking the same question I was thinking about “What would happen if someone decided to light a fire here?"

"Oh my goodness, catastrophe," says Carson. "It would burn and burn and burn, and you can’t extinguish it. You know when you think about all the chemicals that go into creating the tire and you ignite that, you have a catastrophe on your hands, you really do.”

So, where do these tires come from and where do they go?

Carson says there are fees attached to county-sanctioned tire disposal so the most common culprits illegally dumping tires are small businesses located within the city of Detroit.

Sarah Clark says their disrespect for communities is on par with their disregard of the law. She say they often don’t even attempt to trash abandoned lots under the guise of night.

“In fact last year when we were doing a tire sweep, we were putting tires into a dumpster and a truck, midday, actually opened their back gate, dropped off tires, and squealed out," Clark says. "They’re very brazen, these illegal dumpers. They don’t really care.”

On average, Clark says, her organization picks up about 4,000 tires over the course of a three day tire sweep. And Chavez says the work is getting attention from city hall, which she believes could make all the difference.

“City council woman Raquel Castaneda Lopez and Mr. Rico Razor from the mayor’s office, they came over the other day," Chavez says. "That alone, giving their presence, showing support and putting in a word that they’re going to do follow-up, there’s a huge light at the end of the tunnel, and I see it.”

Clark believes community education leads to community action, which is why the organization has challenged community groups in the Brightmoor neighborhood to conduct a massive tire sweep during the same three days southwest carries out their annual sweep.

“And we have the council members on board, so its district one versus district six and council woman Lopez and councilman Tate, they already have a bit of a competitiveness between the two of them, so they’re pretty excited to get on board with this," Clark says.

They won’t get them all but Clark says as many as ten thousand tires could be collected over three days in just two neighborhoods.

What happens to the tires? For June’s clean-up, Wayne County will pay for supplies and pick up the tab for processing the tires.

Meanwhile, Audra Carson’s company -- D-Tread -- is developing products created from discarded tires and she says she’s not alone in exploring alternative uses … such as grinding them up to pad artificial football turf.

“Silver Lining, they chop the tires," says Carson. "And then they also provide Tire Derived Fuel, and its used for heating. We also have Cass Community Social Services, and they create doormats out of the tires, and there’s also a company that makes sandals.”

The inventive spirit of Detroit endures. But for a bankrupt city Detroit is famous for having too much: Too many square miles to support too many vacant buildings and, yes, even too many stray dogs.

And for the time being, there are far too many illegally dumped tires threatening the health of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

WDET’s news team took to the streets to talk to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change. Learn more about The Detroit Agenda here.