Bill Nelson, an Ellsworth resident and bus driver for the local school system, digs an old tire out of the mud on a sloping wooded lot off Deane Street on April 30, 2022. Over a period of 8 months, Nelson and a couple of occasional helpers removed more than 40 old tires from the property after he read about them in a Bangor Daily News article. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Bill Nelson just wants to clean up his coastal Maine city, and this year he took on a challenge that had been ignored in Ellsworth for decades.

Over the past several months, Nelson, with a couple of occasional helpers, has dug up dozens of old tires that were mostly stuck in the mud in an intermittent stream bed a few yards off the city’s busy High Street thoroughfare. The location, behind the former Denny’s Restaurant, had been out of sight, out of mind, until recently.

A bus driver for the city’s schools, Nelson volunteered for the job after he read a Bangor Daily News article about how the tires likely were polluting storm runoff that flows downhill into the Union River.

“We’re over 40,” Nelson said recently of the tires he’s uncovered and hauled away. “I think we’re at 43 so far.”

Tires sit in a pile among trees on a lot off Deane and High streets in Ellsworth in this May 2022 photo. Local school bus driver Bill Nelson has removed dozens of tires this year from the site after reading about them in a story published by the Bangor Daily News. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

By the time he removes the remaining tires, some of which are anchored into place by tree roots that have grown through them over the years, he guessed they will have removed “darn close to 60.” He plans to get the last ones after winter, when the ground is softer and the weather more cooperative.

“It’s going to take a winch to get them out,” he said, adding that he plans to save up money over the next few months so he can buy one for his pickup. “They’re too deep in the ground for a Sawzall.”

The tires are believed to have been dumped down the hillside decades ago when a now-long-gone service station occupied an uphill site on High Street. Before laws were passed to prohibit dumping unwanted items in the woods, employees at the service station simply threw old tires down the slope behind the building, where they slowly sank into the mud and soil.

“I’m determined I’m going to get it finished this spring,” Nelson said.

Nelson, 60, does not do a lot of sitting around. When he is not driving local students to and from school, he is known for helping other people out. He assists friends and acquaintances with home plumbing projects, and lends a hand with maintenance at the local Moose Lodge, where he’s a member. Lately he’s been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, which is looking to build affordable housing in the Ellsworth area.

He participates each year in the annual Card Brook cleanup, where Ellsworth city officials and volunteers remove trash from the brook. He also has volunteered with other city employees for annual work parties clearing trails and fallen trees at Ellsworth City Forest, and on his own time sometimes picks up trash at the triangle where routes 1 and 3 intersect at High Street.

Nelson said he started picking up roadside trash three or four years ago along the Bucksport Road, where the city’s school department keeps its buses. He said the sight of trash in the roadside ditches bothered him.

“I start my day on the Bucksport Road,” he said. “It’s an approach to town, and it looked horrible.”

Old discarded tires that Ellsworth resident Bill Nelson removed from a wooded lot off Deane Street are loaded into the back of a truck at the city’s school bud lot on Bucksport Road on Nov. 27, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Nelson

Nelson contacted the city’s public works department, which agreed to haul away whatever trash he collected and brought to the city’s transfer station, he said. Since then he has gone out three or four times and filled up the back of his pickup truck with trash on Bucksport Road.

“It’s just a little something to help out public works and the Maine Department of Transportation,” Nelson said. “They don’t have the resources to deal with that.”

The bus driver’s reputation among other city employees for cleaning up trash is how he found out about the tires.

Pam Harriman, a substitute teacher and former assistant librarian at Ellsworth High School, read the BDN article and talked to her coworkers about organizing a student clean-up effort. Tom Courchesne, a former custodian at Ellsworth High School who is now the facilities manager at Beech Hill School in Otis, told her he would mention it to Nelson.

Before she knew it, Nelson was making a plan to haul them out.

“Bill kind of took the bull by the horns,” Harriman said. “His experience is invaluable.”

Will Hutchins, a senior at Sumner High School in Sullivan, stands in front of a trailer loaded with old discarded tires on Nov. 27, 2022 after helping Ellsworth resident Bill Nelson remove the tires from a wooded lot off Deane Street. Credit: Courtesy of Bill Nelson

While Harriman’s idea for organizing a school group to remove the tires didn’t come together, Nelson wasn’t waiting around to see if it would.

He quickly got in touch with the landowner and with city officials about what he had to do to take them away. The landowner gave his blessing, and the city said it would dispose of the tires at no cost to Nelson if he brought them to the bus garage.

“I was very excited someone had picked up on it,” Harriman said. “I have a lot of admiration for Bill and his dedication for the environment.”

Courchesne, who met Nelson at work six years ago, said he has gone twice to help his friend pry old tires out of the ground.

“We removed about 35 tires,” Courchesne said. “It was tiring work. Roots were growing through them, and almost every one was buried in mud.”

Kerri Taylor, Ellsworth’s former assistant planner and current human resources manager, said Nelson has become a familiar face at volunteer cleanup projects organized by the city.

“He’s always willing to step up and lend a hand,” Taylor said. “And he took that tire project upon himself.”

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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....