INVESTIGATORS: When tires hit the black market

Imagine having someone dump tons of garbage on your property. 

And then, to make matters worse, you get stuck with a massive clean-up bill. 

Surprisingly, this is happening all over the state. 

It's hard to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the tires behind every door and around every corner on the Morrison County farm Fox 9 recently visited. 

The owner estimates there are 8,000 old, unusable tires piled up on his property. About 30 miles south, another landlord is in shock over the amount of tires piled up in her old poultry barn. 

The rural Foley woman estimates between 5,000 to 10,000 tires dumped by a man who then vanished. 

Some tire shops give away tires, pocket disposal fees

To unravel the mystery behind this bizarre story and to understand how consumers fit in let's back up. 

When you get new tires, Minnesota law requires the old ones be disposed of properly. In the past, they often just piled up somewhere creating a breeding ground for disease carrying mosquitos. 

Occasionally, there were massive fires that sent nasty chemicals into the air. 

Now with the disposal law many auto shops hire licensed recyclers to take away old tires. The old rubber is shredded for use in roads and artificial turf, among other things. 

Consumers pay the shops $3 to $5 per tire for them to do the right thing. But it doesn't always work that way. 

A producer for Fox 9 Investigators went undercover to some area Twin Cities tire retailers. They willingly gave away the used tires they had collected from previous customers to the producer. 

The tire shops that do this can pocket the disposal fee collected. That could be as much as $20 on a set of four. Some stores hire a cut-rate recycler and split the fee.

Costing landowners big headaches and big money

Back at the Morrison County farm with the estimated 8,000 tires on it, Brad Juaire who owns the farm with is family doesn't know what to do. 

"We don't know who to turn to," he says. "Why is this our responsibility?" 

The family rented out the farm to a man who said he wanted a place where special needs kids could go horseback riding. That same guy rented space to store tires in the empty poultry barn from Evelyn Petron. 

"He's lower than a snake's belly," she says. 

According to state investigators, the man is Scott Arthur Lewandowski. He used both properties to dump thousands of tires he was paid to recycle from auto shops. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Lewandowski to pay a $10,000 fine and clean up the mess. He did neither and disappeared. 

After weeks of searching, the Fox 9 Investigators finally reached him by phone. He denied doing anything wrong.

If Juaire and the Petron want their tire piles cleaned up, they'll have to pay for it themselves. Juaire had licensed tire haulers give him estimates and the cheapest one came in at $13,000

Used-tire underworld

Squad car video from Minneapolis police shows officers pulling over Michael Lynn Johnson and then interviewing him in the back seat. He admitted dumping about 80 tires in the yard of a vacant house in north Minneapolis. 

Johnson was convicted of a petty misdemeanor and fined $50. But Minneapolis taxpayers got stuck with the $700 clean-up bill. 

It cost the same amount of money for a property management company to dispose of a pile of dumped tires at a Blaine strip mall. And at a hotel in Plymouth, someone left a pile of old tires in the parking lot. The owner will have to pay to dispose of them. 

There's a lot of money to be made in the used tire market, so much that insiders call it "black gold." 

It's legal to sell second-hand tires to the public. Some of the places will pay cash, no questions asked, for tires that still have decent tread on them.

We went undercover to some used tire stores. A worker at one of them said, "I am sure probably some of the guys who bring us (tires) are breaking some laws. As long as you are not jacking people's cars up and taking the wheels off and stuff like that." 

The guy told our producer people come to him with truckloads of used tires. 

State investigators tell us some of them are unscrupulous recyclers trying to make an extra buck. Others come from people who sneak around auto shops after hours and steal from tire piles that are awaiting proper disposal. They sell whatever they can to the used tire stores and dump the duds.

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