PRAY — There's a big hole in the ground off Chicory Road here, about a half-mile from the Yellowstone River.

It's an old gravel pit behind Mike Adkins' shop, now home to a collection of miscellany — pieces of cement, some large cylindrical tanks. 

Adkins, a contractor with a thick white beard, wants to fill the pit with tires. It could hold about 28 million of them, but he insists he'd stop at 1 million. Then he'd focus on making his inventions work. He said he's working on two processes for recycling the tires but declined to say more because "patents are pending."

He believes this grand idea would be a boon for the Paradise Valley.

Sounds like deja vu to a lot of people here. 

His plans first surfaced about a decade ago, when he asked the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for permission to fill the pit with tires. DEQ approved the plan in 2012, but it was stalled by a lawsuit filed by Protecting Paradise, a group of valley residents worried about the environmental consequences of storing tires. In 2013, a judge ruled in their favor and directed DEQ to spend more time analyzing the potential environmental impacts — like fire risk, air and water pollution, or the potential for the pit to serve as a breeding ground for mosquitos. 

Now, six years after that decision, DEQ has begun work on a full environmental impact statement on the dump, per the judge's instructions. The work began with a public scoping period that opened last month. The same group is still here to fight it, and they remain as concerned as ever. Already, they got one small win — an extension of the initial comment period until July 5.

Sitting in his shop earlier this week, Adkins dismissed their concerns as "junk science." He said their opposition to him is just another push against economic opportunity that's not tied to tourism and the beauty of the valley.

"Any industry in this county, this group of people would fight," Adkins said. "They don't want mines. They don't want ranching. They don't want farming."

Opponents of Adkins' project don't see their fight as an anti-job push. They see themselves trying to ward off potential environmental catastrophe in a place that depends on a healthy river, clean air and unspoiled views.

Tony Eaton, a retired TV producer who owns a ranch across East River Road from Adkins' place, is one member of Protecting Paradise. He doesn't see a reason to risk a tire fire or river pollution. 

He's also not sure Adkins' idea would make any money, and he worries it could mar the area enough to drop property values.

"That's up to him if he wants to go bankrupt doing that," Eaton said. "But he shouldn't drag everyone else down into the pit at the same time to satisfy this quixotic idea of how to make money in Paradise Valley."

This renewed battle follows successful pushes against gravel and gold development here. Tire dumps are a different beast — instead of digging something out of the ground, Adkins wants to take something abundant and store it.

The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association put the number of scrap and used tires generated in 2017 at nearly 290 million. DEQ estimates Montana generates nearly a million a year. Some landfills accept tires, but they take up a lot of space because they're bulky, heavy and hard to compress. Montana has three tire-only landfills, according to DEQ's 2018 integrated waste management plan.

Storing tires comes with human health and environmental risks. The DEQ plan says waste rubber contains "numerous toxic and hazardous pollutants." It also warns that rodents can make homes in the tires, and that mosquitos breed in stagnant water that collects inside them. 

And then there's fire danger. Tire fires are infrequent, but they have happened. They produce thick clouds of black smoke, not to mention air pollutants and the oily runoff that can be left behind.

"Because open, uncontrolled tire fires are difficult to extinguish, large amounts of toxins may be released into the air, soil, and groundwater," the DEQ plan says.

Some fires have resulted in the formation of superfund sites, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In Montana, there have been at least two tire fires since 2001. The EPA has responded to two fires at a tire dump near Pablo, most recently in April 2016.

But old tires are indeed a business opportunity. They can be used for fuel in cement kilns and pulp and paper mills, according to the tire manufacturers association. Ground rubber works well for a number of products, including landscaping mulch and a type of asphalt.

Yellowstone National Park has used recycled tire material for a walking path near Old Faithful. Adkins recalled hearing about that project about a decade ago, and it piqued his interest. He wondered if he could turn his old pit into a supplier of road and trail material for the world's first national park. 

Adkins has owned the pit since 2000. It's 60 feet deep. He'd begin by burying as many tires as he can get his hands on. When his inventions are ready, he'd dig the tires back up and run them through the process.

He said he's had scientists look at all the possible problems — like juiced up mosquito populations, or the possibility of toxins making it to groundwater. To protect against fires, he'll leave a loader and excavator inside the pit, ready to smother a fire if one starts.

"It's so simple," he said. "And yet it's such a big deal."

Opponents of the pit don't trust his assurances that everything will be fine. On its website, Protecting Paradise lists a number of concerns it has with the pit — toxins leaching into groundwater, traffic problems, pests. They worry bout how close the Yellowstone River is, and how close the pit's bottom is to the aquifer.  

Those are some of the issues Park County District Judge Brenda Gilbert ordered DEQ to look harder at. She asked DEQ to add to its original environmental assessment and complete a full environmental impact statement, the most stringent level of analysis under the law. 

A consultant for Adkins provided some supplemental information to DEQ in 2014 to help with adding to the environmental assessment. DEQ began the environmental impact statement work this summer. DEQ spokesman Paul Driscoll said the agency couldn't predict how long the entire process would last.

Many of the same concerns still exist, but some are waiting for more answers before forming an opinion. Jerry Ladewig, who lives south of Emigrant, said she is undecided as of yet, but she has a lot of questions about the project. 

"I think the key is what is the long-term intention," Ladewig said.

Plenty of others are decided. Beyond environmental concerns, there are economic worries, including the mere viability of Adkins' plan. DEQ's waste plan paints a stark picture of the market for waste tires in Montana, saying the market "is still in the development stage in Montana." 

Some are also worried about the impacts to the real estate market. Tracy Raich, a real estate agent and member of Protecting Paradise, said in an email that building an industrial operation changes the desirability of nearby land, likely driving values down.

"We have a healthy market in Paradise Valley because of the beauty and quality of life," Raich said. "The current environment supports our strong property values and economy."

Eaton, the owner of the ranch across the road, shares the concern about property values. But it's also about the magic of this place for him. Yellowstone caught his imagination when he was young, when he visited on camping trips with his family. He built his first house here near Suce Creek in 1990, later switching to the ranch off East River Road. After more than two decades as a part-timer from California, he started living here full-time about seven years ago. 

One evening this week, he drove along the edge of a field on his ranch, overlooking East River Road and the Adkins property. He pointed to the landmarks all around him. Electric Peak to the south, Livingston Peak to the north, the Absarokas to the east, the Gallatins to the west, all pastoral in the fading light. 

"This is why we like it the way it is," Eaton said.

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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