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Salt Lake County has fired the first salvo in a war that officials hope to wage against huge stockpiles of old tires like the one that caught fire last weekend and forced the temporary closure of I-80.

The County Commission has voted to triple, in two stages, the fee charged by the county landfill to dump whole tires.The fee goes from $24 per ton to $50 per ton, effective July 1. Another increase, to $68 per ton, will become effective Jan. 1, 1990.

The fee charged to dump shredded tires remains unchanged at $6 per ton. The price increase applies only to commercial tire-disposal operators, not to residents dumping tires with other household refuse.

The new tire-dumping fee schedule is based on the actual volume of old tires, but the county hopes the new high price will force operators to find disposal alternatives.

Because disposal of a ton of whole tires takes up as much landfill space as disposing 11 tons of other garbage, the increase will raise the tire-dumping rate to roughly 11 times the $6 per ton dumping fee for normal refuse.

"At the landfill, space has value," said Romney Stewart, associate director of the county's Public Works Department. "If the space is filled by tires, it can't be used by the community. This increase makes the tire disposers bear the cost of their dumping, in terms of space consumed."

But the price increase will likely have a secondary effect. The high cost of dumping will "probably all but eliminate whole tire disposal" at the landfill, Stewart said.

He hopes the high landfill fee will force operators to take old tires to commercial shredders, who can dispose of a ton of tires for about $25. The garbage-burning plant in Davis County is another alternative. The plant will burn a ton of tires for about $36.

Unfortunately, the fee increase will also increase the incentive for unscrupulous operators to illegally engage in the "midnight dumping" of old tires on vacant lots.

To combat that unwanted side effect, the county is coordinating a four-point plan to deal with the tire problem. The fee increase is just a first step, Stewart said.

The next move is to increase the use of other disposal methods. That will be driven by market forces and will happen gradually over the next year or two as more marketable uses for shredded tires are developed, he said.

Currently, shredded tires are made into mats to pad playground equipment and horse trailers. Experiments with other uses for the tire material are under way.

The third step is state legislation placing a $1 surcharge on the sale of each tire - or as an alternative, on vehicle-registration fees - to raise money for a state tire-disposal fund.

The money could be used for research into other disposal methods and could pay for transportation of existing tire stockpiles - like the one that burned this week - to a disposal site. Several local legislators from both parties are working on a draft bill for the next legislative session, and the issue is scheduled for interim committee study.

Finally, tight regulations governing the storage and transportation of tires are needed, Stewart said.