An old tire sits abandoned in a muddy streambed that winds through a wooded property off Edgewood Way in central Ellsworth in this November 2021 photo. It is one of at least 39 tires in and around the streambed, which drains down to the Union River when it rains. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

There are at least 39 old tires abandoned in or near a streambed behind the former Denny’s restaurant in Ellsworth that, according to state law, are not supposed to be there — and they’ve gone largely unnoticed, perhaps for decades.

The tires, many of them embedded in mud where water flows intermittently downhill toward the Union River, appear to have been there for years — possibly as far back as the 1940s when, according to city staff, a service station operated on High Street approximately where the shuttered Denny’s restaurant is now.

The presence of the discarded tires, which could be causing an environmental hazard by slowly releasing microplastics into the surrounding environment, shows that despite decades of efforts to clean up the Union River watershed, problems remain.

State law prohibits the disposal of automotive tires or any other solid waste at any place other than a licensed disposal facility, though it does allow some exemptions. Tires that are being stored for possible use, and tires that serve some other function, such as being used in construction, can be kept outdoors in the elements, according to Paula Clark of Maine Department of Environmental Protection. That’s not the case in Ellsworth.

The tires behind Denny’s, which closed down during the pandemic and currently is listed for sale for $2 million, are scattered among a group of trees and most are lying or partially buried in the streambed, which is fed by drainage culverts that come out of the hillside just below Edgewood Way. The road runs south from Deane Street behind Denny’s and the Circle K convenience store before curving east and connecting with High Street.

“It isn’t legal to do that, technically speaking,” Clark said about dumping tires in the woods. “It’s a pretty common occurrence where we get a complaint about waste being dumped on a property.”

According to researchers at the Shaw Institute in Blue Hill, which specializes in the study of the sources and impact of pollution on the environment, tires can release the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere just while sitting in the sun. They also can trap water, produce toxic smoke if they catch fire, and serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread disease.

That’s a problem for the local watershed.

“The presence of flowing, standing, or even rain water is key when considering the risk of tire [pollution] contaminating surrounding soils and waterways, including groundwater,” Holly Clare, a spokesperson for the institute, said Thursday.

Even old tires can shed harmful microplastics into the environment, researchers at the institute said. Studies have shown that chemicals released when tires are exposed to the elements can harm the health of a variety of organisms ranging from algae and fish to earthworms and watercress, they said.

Cleaning up the tires though shows limitations in how quickly state and local authorities deal with illegal dump sites.

Since the mid-1990s, the state has been working to reduce or remove the largest uncontrolled tire stockpiles in the state, which typically have contained multiple thousands of old tires, according to Clark. But sites like the one behind Denny’s are often too small for the DEP, which doesn’t have the time or resources to respond to every complaint, she said. Sometimes smaller cleanups are passed along and left to the discretion of other agencies or local authorities.

In Ellsworth though, Elena Piekut, the city’s staff planner, said city officials had not been aware of the abandoned tires off Edgewood Way prior to being contacted this week by the Bangor Daily News. There is no indication in the city’s files that anyone has filed a complaint about them before, she said.

Typically, when a complaint is lodged, city staff verifies if there is a code or zoning violation, Piekut said, before investigating further. Then the city tries to contact the landowner, who sometimes is not aware of the violation but is willing to fix it, she said. “Compliance through cooperation,” instead of going to court, often is the best way to address zoning or code issues, she said.

In this case, although automobile junkyards are permitted in some areas of Ellsworth, the zone where the tires are located isn’t one of them, she said. The city hasn’t yet investigated further.

Beyond violations, some cleanups are handled by locals with the cooperation of landowners. It’s unclear if that might happen here though.

Each year since 1995 there has been an annual volunteer effort to remove trash from Ellsworth’s Card Brook, which flows west under High Street and downhill to the Union River, a little more than half a mile from where the tires lie in the streambed off Edgewood Way.

More than 1,000 pounds of trash and discarded items were removed from Card Brook during the cleanup this past spring, according to Piekut.

Aaron Dority is executive director of Frenchman Bay Conservancy, one of the groups that participates in the Card Brook cleanup each year. Dority said the annual cleanup event is an important way for local residents to help protect the Union River watershed, which is one of the organization’s key focus areas.

“Ellsworth has this incredible natural asset running right through the center of town,” Dority said. “We want to create opportunities for Ellsworth residents and the public to reconnect with the river.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....