Division of Waste Management Joins Multi-state Effort to Remove Tires from the Tug Fork River

By Brad Bowman

Division of Waste Management Field Operations Branch employees Alex Ballard, Sarah Hettel and DWM FOB Manager Brian Osterman load tires reclaimed from the bed of the Tug Fork River on to boats. Photo by Brad Bowman

SOUTH WILLIAMSON – Buried for decades in a grave of silt, rock and sand in the Tug Fork River, hundreds of illegally dumped tires resurfaced September 20 as volunteers from two states dug and hauled them from the water for recycling.

A dozen members from the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Waste Management Field Operations Branch and Recycling and Local Assistance Branch helped local volunteers from Friends of the Tug Fork River, AmeriCorps, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), and Williamson Parks and Recreation Commission remove about 500 used tires in the eastern Kentucky Appalachian community of South Williamson. 

“A lot of these tires are historically from people and businesses dumping in creeks and as we have more flooding and washouts these are surfacing in the river,” said Brian Osterman, manager of the Division of Waste Management Field Operations Branch. “A month ago, nearly 900 were pulled from the river. Last year, about 2,300 were pulled (from the river).” 

Members of West Virginia’s DEP haul reclaimed tires on aluminum boats provided by both states back to the Kentucky side extraction point a quarter of mile upstream. Photo by Brad Bowman

Osterman said the tires will be recycled into crumb rubber and used in products such as mulch, rubber modified asphalt, and rubber matting for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) playgrounds.

John Burchett, a Friends of the Tug Fork River volunteer, said this is the third year of the group’s efforts to reclaim tires in the Williamson area from the river, which snakes along the West Virginia and Kentucky border. 

“In 2019, the West Virginia DEP came and we recovered 2,321 tires in four days’ work. Three weeks ago, we got 819 tires in one day,” said Burchett. “Today, I don’t know what we will get, but we are making a big difference and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has come, the West Virginia DEP is here…it’s a two-state river and we have both states working together — that’s the important thing.” 

Jarrod Dean, executive director of Williamson Parks and Recreation Commission of West Virginia, didn’t hesitate to get in the river and help with the cleanup. For Dean, the interstate cooperation is vital for the environment and interdependent economies.

“The City of Williamson Parks and Recreation sees the Tug Fork River as a major recreational asset to our community and economy,” Dean said. “Working with Kentucky in a common effort is a breath of fresh air… We came together in the river for a common goal — to cleanup years of harsh vandalism to our river… We are happy to be a part of the West Virginia and Kentucky efforts to clean this up so both states can utilize the river for recreation. It takes all of us working together to move forward together.”

During the daylong effort, volunteers were frequently waist deep in the muddied river water, wrestling with tires and using crowbars. Often it took several sets of hands just to dislodge the tires, then scoop out decades of accumulated debris, sand and rock.

Kentucky workers paired with volunteers to lift the larger, heavier tires onto aluminum flat boats, which WVDEP staff hauled a quarter of a mile upstream using an amphibious Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan (REAP) vehicle.

Volunteers and DEP team members reclaimed a large off-the-road (OTR) tire typically found on large construction equipment, from a 150-foot span of the riverbed. The REAP vehicle was stuck for several minutes midstream as the tire, tethered to the vehicle, sank and anchored itself once again under water.

After wrestling the large tire’s end up from the Tug Fork River’s bed, Division of Waste, AmeriCorps and Friends of the Tug Fork River volunteers enlist the help of machinery to pull it free. Photo by Brad Bowman
The Tug Fork River’s current has buried thousands of illegally dumped tires into a grave of silt and sand, some from the 1970s., others stuck erect like tombstones from the water’s surface. Photo by Brad Bowman
Sarah Hettel and Leslie Carr use team work to lift a large reclaimed tire into a boat for extraction.
Photo by Brad Bowman

Left to right : DWM team Leslie Carr and Sarah Hettel help AmeriCorps volunteer Tony Smith pull a tire from the riverbed, Darin Steen, environmental control manager and Brian Osterman dig out tires along the West Virginia river bank, West Virginia’s REAP amphibious vehicle hauls a large OTR tire reclaimed from the river. Photos by Brad Bowman

At the Kentucky extraction point, Pike County Detention Center inmates aided WVDEP contractors in moving loads of reclaimed tires onto the recycling trailer provided by Kentucky DEP.

Burchett said volunteers are welcome at future cleanup efforts scheduled Sept. 30, Oct. 2 and Oct. 4.

More information can be found on the public Facebook page Friends of the Tug Fork River.  

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