With L.A. motorists returning an estimated 300,000 potentially flawed Firestone tires and other drivers statewide turning in another 700,000 or so, the question arises: Where will all those bogus tires go?

The lion's share is expected to end up at Santa Fe Springs-based Lakin Tire, a major tire wholesaler and recycler that's also the chief distributor and scrapper of Firestone tires for the entire Western United States.

As the tires are taken off the vehicles, it's Lakin's responsibility to collect them from dealers and try to find other uses for them.

When contacted, Lakin officials declined to comment on how rapidly they are collecting the tires or on any other aspect of the Firestone recall. One Lakin executive cited litigation fears as the reason for not commenting, another sign of just how touch-and-go the recall is proving for customers, dealers and wholesalers.

Lakin officials aren't the only ones concerned. State environmental officials are worried about the potential impacts of the looming tsunami of tires.

"Given the huge, unprecedented nature of this recall, we are tracking this situation very closely," said Lanny Clavecilla, spokesman for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which regulates tire disposal. "We know that a lot of these tires will be recycled, with some being turned into asphalt, others into playground mats. But we aren't sure they will find markets for all these tires, and we're concerned about storing the tires in the meantime until the markets open up."

By state law, the tires can't be stored too long at dealers' or distributors' lots, in part because of the extreme fire danger. (While tires are hard to set ablaze, once they catch fire, the fires are among the most difficult to put out.) And there are only so many places that can recycle or warehouse tires.

Normally, a tire scrapper like Lakin would cull through the used tires and try to salvage some of the tires for reuse. Typically, many of these tires, especially the better-quality ones, end up being resold in other countries.

But each of the recalled tires is being intentionally punctured as soon as it comes off the vehicle, specifically to prevent its reuse. That means Lakin has to find recyclers for the tires, or some other means of disposal.

Sparing the landfills

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. itself is working to find enough tire recyclers so as to avoid putting hundreds of thousands of tires into landfills.

"We want to get all the tires to scrap dealers that try to find beneficial second uses for them," said Firestone spokesman Richard Buckley.

If the sudden spike in the supply of bum tires exceeds market demand from recyclers, some of the tires will likely be sent to special IWMB-designated waste tire storage facilities. But only seven such facilities in L.A. County are allowed to store more than 5,000 tires. There are another seven L.A. sites that can store up to 5,000 tires, but given the number of tires involved in the recall, these do not appear to be a viable long-term option.

One of state regulators' immediate concerns is ensuring that Lakin picks up the tires promptly from Firestone dealers. Besides the Firestone-owned outlets, Sears Roebuck & Co. and Discount Tire Centers are among the dealers that sell Firestone tires and are now accepting recalled tires.

State regulations prohibit most of these dealers from storing used tires on their premises for more than two or three days. One major reason is that proper storage calls for adequate ventilation and spaces between rows of tires to reduce the fire danger.

Bottlenecks brewing?

While Lakin's Santa Fe headquarters is expected to handle most of the 300,000 tires that Angelenos are to turn in, the company does have other satellite facilities throughout California and other Western states that will be also taking in the recalled tires. Presumably, each of those facilities will try to find local recyclers willing to accept the flawed tires.

To give Lakin some time to figure out what to do with the anticipated avalanche of recalled tires in California, the IWMB has offered to extend or expand Lakin's storage permits on a temporary basis, if Lakin requests such an extension, Clavecilla said.

As of late last week, no such request had come in. And the anticipated storage bottlenecks had not yet materialized at local dealers. That's because so far, only about one-sixth of the recalled tires have been turned in, as replacement tires have been hard to find.

"We can't get the replacement tires in fast enough," said a Discount Tire Center store manager.

Still, in L.A. County alone, an estimated 50,000 recalled tires have been turned in. And Lakin has already collected many of those tires and, in turn, is sending some of them to local recyclers.

"I'm sure we've had some of the recalled tires go through, although we have not been tracking them specifically," said Michael Harrington, vice president of Compton-based CRM Co. LLC, which recycles up to 3 million tires a year and receives frequent shipments from Lakin. "What I can say is that, so far, we've not been inundated with these tires."

CRM primarily turns the tires into asphalt, which is then used for road paving. Tire recyclers like CRM also turn out rubber mats that can be used for playgrounds and gymnasiums, among other things.

Harrington expects a lot more recalled tires to come in next month.

But not every tire is going to be recycled. A few of the recalled tires are being sent to a special Firestone research and testing facility in Akron, Ohio, in an apparent attempt to eliminate future problems.

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