Updated: From Spotlight Delaware: A year after a tire pile helped topple port operator, the eyesore was removed

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This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

(Update: Rep. Heffernan reported on Saturday that tires were removed rom the site this week).

By  Karl Baker

The massive tire piles at the Port of Wilmington’s Edgemoor property that last year stoked fears among neighbors of mosquito infestations and rubber fires may finally be getting removed in the coming month, port officials said during a public meeting Friday. 

Yet, why tires still remain and how many have been removed to date is not entirely clear. 

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That is, in part, because the port’s new operator, Massachusetts-based Enstructure, has remained quiet about the issue over the past months as a curious dispute played out between state officials and the original owner of the tires.

Meanwhile, in an apparent case of coincidence, a separate venture is on the verge of obtaining a permit to bring in more used tires to a property that sits next to the Edgemoor site. While the owner of the new tire operation insists his will be done safely, skepticism from some neighbors persists. 

In all, the development marks the latest in years of opaque dramas that have plagued the publicly owned Port of Wilmington, even as Delaware officials sought to grow jobs at the facility by transforming the Edgemoor property into the state’s next shipping container terminal. 

The outrage over the estimated 10,000 tons of shredded and used tires at Edgemoor erupted last spring, during the months before Delaware officials ousted the port’s previous operator, Gulftainer, from the state. 

Leading the criticism then was Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte), who called the tire piles an environmental disaster. She argued they could become a haven for insects, or had the potential to fuel an uncontrollable fire that could send smoke into the nearby communities of Edgemoor, Bellefonte or Northeast Wilmington. 

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Heffernan said during a board meeting last May of the Diamond State Port Corporation, the state entity that oversees the Port of Wilmington.

At the meeting, the Diamond State board passed a resolution, sponsored by Heffernan, to direct public dollars to the cleanup of the tires at Edgemoor – the site of a former chemical plant.

Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, who serves as chair of the Diamond State board, said during last year’s meeting that he expected the cleanup of the tires to begin in the coming weeks, either by the then-port operator, Gulftainer, or by the state. 

He also said the cleanup could cost as much as $3 million.

“It has been far too long that this issue has festered,” Bullock said at the time.

Nearly a year later, Gulftainer no longer runs the publicly owned Port of Wilmington. But, last week, towering piles of tire material still were visible from Hay Road – the street that runs alongside the desolate, 115-acre Edgemore property that in past decades was the site of DuPont chemical plant. 

Enstructure did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

But, during a public meeting on Friday of the Diamond State Port Corporation, Enstructure executive Bayard Hogans said he was “hopeful by next week that the majority of the tires would be removed.” 

Still, the lingering tire issue is troubling to many who live near the Edgemoor site, with some saying the slow movement on the problem follows what they have long described as years of disregard for their communities by state and port officials.

During an interview last week, prior to Hogan’s comments on Friday, one community organizer said residents in the area had previously been told by “some officials in government that these tires have been moved.” 

“If the tires are still there in significant tonnage, then we have a problem and it is a ticking time bomb,” said the organizer, Jeffrey Richardson, who leads a group called the Delaware Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (DelCBAC).

The backstory

More than three years ago, regulators from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control first learned about the tires at Edgemoor. 

By the summer of 2022, DNREC issued a sanction to the owner of the tire piles – Chris Reyes and his New York-based company, S&A Marketing Company – for failing to obtain a permit for the operation.  

At the time, DNREC did not appear to post the sanction onto its website as is customary. As a result, residents living near the Edgemoor site did not learn about the tire piles until the following spring.

By June of last year, after port officials directed public dollars to the tire cleanup, Gulftainer obtained a court order to legally take control of the tires from Reyes and his company. 

Weeks later, Reyes responded, saying in an email to state and port officials that he had been prevented from accessing the tires at Edgemoor for 15 months and claimed that the court order was illegitimate. 

By August, Enstructure took over Port of Wilmington operations from Gulftainer. 

That same month, Reyes said in a subsequent email that he “had encountered several delays,” but claimed he could begin moving the tires within a month, pending a permit from Delaware environmental regulators.  

Months then passed with little apparent progress.

During an interview in January, Reyes said none of the tires had been removed from the property at that point, because state officials “had blocked” him from accessing the Edgemoor site.

He also said he may bring a lawsuit against the State of Delaware.

“That material has been in there because they (state officials) have left it there,” Reyes said. “I would dare them to say that it is abandoned.”

For his part, Bullock places the blame for the lingering tire problem directly on Reyes, saying in an email last month that he had refused to remove the tires. 

“There have been a lot of threats and potential litigation, but everyone seems confident of our legal position to take the action we took,” Bullock said in his email. 

A looming solution?

As the drama over the tires reached a peak last spring, a separate company filed a permit application to process and store used tires coincidentally at a property that sits a few parcels down from the Edgemoor site, also along Hay Road. 

In the coming weeks or months, the state will likely grant the permit for the new venture, Scrap Tire Solution.

Well aware of the nearby controversy, Scrap Tire Solution owner Erik Gonzalez said his operation will keep all used tires brought to his property under cover, and away from the rain. 

He will then place them into a hydraulic compactor at his site, creating tire cubes that can then be exported to companies in other countries that would extract fuel from them. 

In contrast to Reyes’ venture, Gonzalez stressed that he will not bring in used tires to his Hay Road property until he secures his permit.  

While Gonzalez pointed out that his company ultimately could help with the cleanup at Edgemoor, he said that the lingering tire problem was not the reason he and his two business partners formed their company.  

Scrap Tire Solution formed in November 2022, five months after DNREC sanctioned Reyes’ company.

“I know coincidences are rare, but this happens to be one of those rare things,” Gonzalez said. 

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