Government

Who is responsible for cleaning up waste tires by Iowa River?

Iowa DNR can't afford to remove thousands of tires it once permitted

John Rummelhart poses for a photo March 17 among hundreds of tires removed from his property before they are disposed of
John Rummelhart poses for a photo March 17 among hundreds of tires removed from his property before they are disposed of in Lone Tree. Thousands of tires that were once part of a bank stabilization project on the Iowa River near Lone Tree have drifted to nearby properties. Property owners wonder if the state, which authorized the project in the 1980s, should pay for cleanup now. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Thousands of tires once part of a 30-year-old bank stabilization project on the Iowa River near Lone Tree have drifted to neighbors’ properties, where they now are marooned in timber because of past floods.

These neighbors wonder if the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which authorized the project in the 1980s, should pay for cleanup.

“Even if I got every one of them off my land, there are another 1,000 tires on the next person’s property,” said John Rummelhart, 64, of Iowa City. “It’s almost an insurmountable project.”

In 1986, the Iowa DNR, then called the Iowa Department of Water, Air and Waste Management, gave Marion Sexton a permit to construct mats of waste tires at two sites on the banks of the Iowa River to reduce erosion.

The mats, a common riverbank stabilization project at the time, were built by staking tractor tires into the ground closest to the water, with truck and car tires lined up in rows farther up the bank, said Kurt Levetzow, senior environmental specialist in charge of solid waste for Iowa DNR’s Washington field office. He was not with the office when the permit was signed.

The tires were to be covered with sand and topsoil, encouraging vegetation to grow and enhance stabilization.

“The permittee and any successor in real estate on which the permitted activity is located shall be responsible for proper maintenance,” the permit stated.

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But over the last 30 years, that maintenance hasn’t always been done and rising waters, weather and time have broken down the mat and set the tires loose, Levetzow said. Sexton died in June.

In an unrelated case, Sexton’s daughter, Edith Hora, faces first-degree theft charges based on allegations she stole more than $650,000 intended for Sexton. That trial is set for May 5 in Johnson County District Court.

Rummelhart, who bought his land across the river 20-some years ago, recently decided to document how many tires were on his land in hopes of getting an estimate for removing them. As he walked through the timber, taking photos of clusters of waste tires tangled in the undergrowth, he became overwhelmed.

“There are just so many,” he said. Rummelhart estimates it might cost $10,000 to remove the tires on his property.

Tires aren’t a tremendous environmental risk, Levetzow said, especially since it can take up to 100 years for them to biodegrade. But they are unsightly litter and have caused problems around the state. The city of Davenport estimated in February it would likely charge nearly $100,000 in disposal fees after the city had to haul away 16,000 waste tires, WQAD-TV reported.

Rummelhart said since the Iowa DNR permitted the tire mat and should have been monitoring maintenance over the years, the state agency should pay for removing the tires.

“If someone had all the money and all the time you could demand the documentation to see if someone was negligent in allowing that sort of project,” he said.

But the Iowa DNR can’t afford to remove thousands of tires, Levetzow said.

“We don’t have the funding to clean up everyone’s tire piles,” he said.

It’s reasonable to assume the tires on Rummelhart’s property and other neighboring lands came from the Sexton property, but it would be difficult to prove, Levetzow said. Also, a note in the 1986 permit indicates similar work might have gone on under the owner before Sexton.

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The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a wetland easement on part of the Sexton land, but Tony Maxwell, NRCS district conservationist, said the easement does not permit waste or debris so he doesn’t think it is the same area with the tire mat.

The Iowa DNR plans to work with Sexton’s family to repair and maintain what is left of the mat so no additional tires drift from the property, Levetzow said.

Rummelhart isn’t happy with that answer, but barring a lawsuit, he may have to move on.

“We’ll just have to clean up what we can under our budget restrictions,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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