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Youngstown City Council issues one-year pause on plant to convert old tires to energy

A pile of old tires at a recycling plant
Singha Songsak P
Youngstown City Council unanimously approved a year-long moratorium in Dec. 2024 blocking the development of a pyrolysis plant downtown. Pyrolysis, proposed by SOBE Thermal Energy Solutions, uses heat to break down shredded tires and convert them to synthetic gas. Council is concerned about the plant's impact on air quality.

Youngstown city council hit pause on plans for an energy plant that would transform used tires into synthetic gas. Community advocates call council’s unanimous decision on December 20th a small victory, but what comes next?

Council and community advocates raised concerns about SOBE Thermal Energy Solutions’ plans to convert shredded tires to energythrough a process called pyrolysis.

The moratorium builds on previous action against the plant, Council President Tom Hetrick said, and will give council time to conduct its own research.

“We wanted to take that time to study the issue more in depth into the concerns that the residents have both about zoning issues but also just safety, environmental health concerns. There's environmental justice concerns there,” he said.

Pyrolysis is viewed by some as a sustainable solution to the growing plastic pollution problem. Through pyrolysis, plastic, used and shredded tires in SOBE’s case, is heated and converted into synthetic gas that would be used to heat surrounding buildings.

But residents and local environmental groups are concerned by a lack of research on the effects on public health and the environment.

“This gasification and these pyrolysis plants are very unproven technology and they're calling it a way to recycle tires, plastics, e-waste,” Northeast Ohio Regional Director for the Ohio Environmental Council Chris Colόn said. “Anybody who works in the environmental industry knows that there's no true way to recycle these plastics yet. There's no technology that has been able to do it the right way where it's sustainable and it doesn't continue to affect the environment.”

A pyrolysis plant isn’t needed in Youngstown where the community hasn’t yet bounced back from its once booming steel industry, resident and member of SOBE Concerned Citizens Lynn Anderson said.

"Youngstown's a former steel mill town, and the town has never been cleaned up. The brownfields have never been cleaned up," Anderson said. "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland, Ohio, that were also steel towns, they had recoveries. Youngstown never had a recovery."

Anderson and other members of SOBE Concerned Citizen have worked with the Ohio Environmental Council, Beyond Petrochemicals and other environmental advocacy groups to ensure city council representatives and other residents were in the know about the plant and its potential risks.

“They’ve really held our feet to the fire, I would say, and made sure that we are taking action,” Hetrick said. “I anticipate that relationship to continue throughout … this moratorium period.”

A letter to council from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency noted SOBE would have to meet local requirements to operate, Hetrick said, even if the EPA issues its final permit to the energy plant.

“As a city, we do have the authority to regulate land use decisions within the city limits,” Hetrick said. “So, this moratorium is exercising those rights that the city of Youngstown does have.”

The Ohio EPA has not yet published a final permit for SOBE. Council may use the time to update the zoning code to ban pyrolysis operations near residential areas, Hetrick said.

“Pyrolysis and gasification operations involving waste to energy plants are not permitted in the in the downtown area or adjacent to residential neighborhoods,” he said. “I would argue the zoning code is already pretty clear about that, but it does not specifically mention pyrolysis and gasification.”

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