COLUMBIA, S.C. — The sprawling pile of hundreds of thousands of tires isn't easy to spot from the ground, sitting in a rural South Carolina clearing accessible by only a circuitous dirt path that winds through thick patches of trees. No one knows how all those tires got there, or when.
But, Calhoun County Council Chairman David Summers says of this giant rubber menace, "You can see it from space."
Authorities have charged one person in connection with the mess of roughly 250,000 tires, which covers more than 50 acres on satellite images. And now a Florida company is helping haul it all away.
Litter control officer Boyce Till said he contacted the local sheriff and state health department, which is investigating who had been dumping the tires. But the worst possible penalty that could be imposed locally? A single $475 ticket for littering.
Records show the property is owned by Michael Keitt Jr. of Far Rockaway, N.Y.
A phone number for Keitt could not be found, but local officials said the man was one of several heirs to the property, all of whom live out of state.
As part of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's case, a state grand jury issued indictments against George Fontella Brown, 39, of Easley, on three charges of violating the state's solid waste act, according to DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick. Those state charges carry much heftier possible penalties, including thousands of dollars in fines and up to a year in jail.
Myrick would not discuss details of the case against Brown, and a spokesman for state Attorney General Alan Wilson did not respond to messages. No working phone listing could be found for Brown, who also faces similar charges in Greenville and Orangeburg counties, and court records did not list an attorney for him.
Tire dumping has historically been a problem in Calhoun County and other rural areas, said Summers, who recalled another giant tire pile in the 1990s that would dwarf the current monstrosity.
"This tire pile here is a baby compared to what that one was," said Summers, who previously worked for a company that ended up shredding those used tires.
South Carolina retailers charge motorists $2 for every new tire they buy, which helps pay for the cleanup and recycling of old tires. But Summers said many tires never make it to recycling plants, instead being discarded and growing into gargantuan piles.
For now, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based tire processing company is working to clear the pile.
Tricia Johnson, owner of Lee Tire Company, Inc., said a property owner whom she declined to name called her for help hauling off the material. So far, Johnson said between 10 and 15 tractor-trailer loads of tires have been shipped to her Florida facility. There, they will either have oil and steel extracted from them, or they will be shredded and made into tire-derived fuel, which Johnson said burns more cleanly than coal and is used by paper mills.
Johnson said she has waived her usual fee and is charging the property owner only for transportation costs. She hopes to have all 250,000 tires processed by early 2012.
"He had good intentions," Johnson said of the man who called and asked for her help. "He is trying to clean it up. He just got stuck. He tried all the resources to move the tires as quickly as he could."