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Youngstown residents push back on a proposed plant to convert old tires into energy

a photo of a welcome to Youngstown sign
SOBE Thermal Energy is proposing a process called pyrolysis that uses heat to break down shredded tires and convert them to synthetic gas. The public is concerned about the plant's impact on air quality, and it pressuring the Ohio EPA to deny the SOBE's permit.

SOBE Thermal Energy has announced plans to bring pyrolysis to Youngstown – a process that burns tire chips to make synthetic gas which would be used to heat surrounding buildings in Downtown Youngstown. But there's public pressure on the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to reject the company's permit.

The public comment period on the SOBE’s draft permit ended Sunday. Community members submitted more than 1700 comments, largely opposing the permit approval, said Vicky Abou-Ghalioum, lead petrochemicals organizer with Buckeye Environmental Network, a state-wide nonprofit environmental justice organization formerly known as the Buckeye Forest Council.

“It would be very, very unfortunate but also against the public interest if the [OEPA] went ahead and gave the permit anyway, considering that they are supposed to represent what is best for the public interest and the public good,” Abou-Ghalioum said.

Ohio EPA refused a request for an interview on Buckeye Environmental Network’s concerns over air pollution but said in an emailed statement that no decision has been made yet on the permit, and the agency will be reviewing all statements and actions submitted during the public comment period.

“When Ohio EPA considers issuing or denying permits, we follow state and federal environmental laws and regulations,” Ohio EPA Media Coordinator Anthony Chenault said in the statement. “Local areas may use zoning requirements to determine if an operation should be placed in a certain location.”

What remains unclear, Abou-Ghalioum said, is how the Ohio EPA determines what pollutants will be released into the atmosphere as a result of breaking down the shredded tires, which can contain as much as 24 percent synthetic polymers.

“The proposed emissions are based on information the company provided from a smaller scale unit,” Chenault said in the statement. “This information was compared to data that would be expected from an emissions source of this size. The proposed emission limits were developed to minimize the impact on the community.”

SOBE representatives say the process is environmentally-friendly, along with other “waste-to-energy” plants across the country. But much of the community in Youngstown remains concerned that the plant may worsen air quality in an already at-risk community, Abou-Ghalioum said.

“The neighborhood that this facility is proposed to be sited and is already very disadvantaged when it comes to public health in the 99th, 98th, 97th, 95th and 90th percentile for asthma, diabetes, heart disease, low life expectancy and being low-income households,” she said.

Buckeye Environmental Network requested an environmental justice review from the Ohio EPA before the permit process continues. Youngstown City Council’s Environment Committee passed a resolution opposing the plant in August. Council is expected to vote on the resolution on September 20.

“[Residents’] hope is that the plant will not get built,” Abou-Ghalioum said. “They are educated about the threats that it poses to their health, to the environment, but it would not be a benefit to the city of Youngstown overall, and they've worked really hard to educate the city council on that as well.”

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.