OURAY COUNTY – Citizens and county commissioners peppered representatives of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment with questions Tuesday (Aug. 23) on the ongoing investigation into Ouray County’s tire-flood “catastrophe.”
That was the word used by CDPHE Program Manager for Solid Waste Charles Johnson, who was on the speakerphone from Denver. In person at the 4H Event Center in Ridgway was Jeff Emmons of the compliance assurance unit of CDPHE, who participated in a site inspection of the Gunn property – source of the offending tires – last week.
“Our preliminary finding shows,” Emmons told the board, “that Mr. Gunn has not received a certificate of designation to operate a landfill. He has filled what I will call an arroyo with waste tires over the past 10-15 years. And [we found] that Mr. Maynes [Keith Maynes of Maynes Tire in Montrose, presumed source of the used tires] is not a registered tire hauler.”
A thunderstorm and flash flood on July 26 washed upwards of 1,000 tires from the illegal dump into Burro Creek, then Cow Creek, and then the Uncompahgre River. Tires may have reached as far as the West Canal diversion dam at Trout Road in Montrose County, approximately 12 miles downstream.
Emmons described the scene on the Butch Gunn property, which he visited with Ouray County Sheriff Dominic Mattivi, as “approximately 300 yards of disturbed area, at least eight feet deep at one end. And what the original contours of that arroyo they covered over, and how deep, I don’t know. It was estimated by the property owner and by Mr. Maynes that 3,000-4,000 tires remain.”
Citizen Howard Green asked if a cease and desist order had been issued by the state to keep any more tires from being buried, or perhaps removed from the site.
On the phone Johnson answered, “No. But the penalties can be up to $10,000 per day per event. So that message is usually something people pay close attention to. And Jeff Emmons delivered that message.”
“Word for word,” Emmons added.
Johnson explained that CDPHE “has the authority for inspecting and enforcing solid waste rules and regulations. That would be haulers, collection sites, ultimate disposal, and the collection of fees for disposal of waste tires. We also have the authority to determine what needs to be done, what corrective actions need to be taken.”
“What are the next steps?” asked Commission Chair Heidi Albritton.
“We issue our report,” Johnson said. “Then we have what is called a compliance advisory. We sit down with the parties, if they are amenable, and try to agree on the facts, make sure we are on the same page. Then we issue a corrective action order. We can go to court if necessary to compel compliance.”
“Who bears the cost of the cleanup?” asked Albritton.
Johnson answered, “We start with Mr. Gunn and Mr. Maynes, the owner and the operator.”
Albritton: “What if they are not a bottomless pit of money?”
Johnson: “Few people are.”
Albritton: “Could the county be responsible for paying for the cleanup?”
Johnson: “We would not go after the county to bear that cost. Violators need to clean up their messes.”
Ridgway rancher Ken Lipton asked, “Is this strictly a civil matter, or is it criminal?”
“It is civil,” Johnson replied. “We do have some legal avenues through the Attorney General’s office if we believe this needs to be a criminal matter. But I can’t comment on that at this time.”
Albritton: “You say you are making sure to work with other agencies. What about the Environmental Protection Agency?”
“They would not be involved on the landfill,” Johnson said. “On water quality, we’ll be integrating their concerns. Tires are pollution. But they are not a contaminant that is threatening water quality right now, from their perspective.”
“Does that mean,” asked Commissioner Lynn Padgett, “they could see leaving the tires in the river? Because we have recreational and aesthetic issues.”
“No,” Johnson said. “That would be an unacceptable outcome from our perspective.”
“When might we get your report?” Padgett asked Emmons. “I hope next week. The report is being reviewed in Denver now.”
“Please keep the county posted,” Albritton said to Johnson, on the other end of the phone. “And thank you for your work and your patience with us, with all of our many and elaborate emails on this. It’s just because we love Ouray County.”