West Coast fishing groups filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month against 13 of the largest tire manufacturers in the U.S., alleging the companies are illegally killing or harming endangered salmon and oceangoing trout by the use of toxic chemicals in their products.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco alleges that the tire-makers violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act through the discharge of 6PPD-quinone, a chemical derived from a preservative that helps tires last longer. The chemical has been linked to mortality in coho salmon returning to Puget Sound streams and, the groups allege, is harming Chinook and steelhead.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources’ complaint outlines two dozen endangered populations of salmonids along the West Coast that have been impacted by the chemical.
In 2020, researchers revealed that the toxic chemical was the culprit behind the deaths of coho in about 40% of the Puget Sound area. The study found it kills 40% to 90% of coho returning to some urban streams before they spawn.
Toxic concentrations of the chemical have been confirmed in watersheds in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. The National Marine Fisheries Service has identified stormwater runoff as a significant factor contributing to the decline of each of the 24 populations the complaint identifies. The stormwater runoff contains 6PPD-quinone.
Symptoms of acute poisoning among coho salmon have been described in urban streams since the late 1980s. Today, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has linked a 70% decline in coho in the San Francisco Bay Area between the 1960s and 1990s to the use of the chemical in tires.
These declines related to the chemical, coupled with climate change, and habitat loss related to the damming, diking and channeling of rivers and streams for farming, electricity, drinking water and other human uses, have led to conservation closures of tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries along the West Coast.
The complaint comes on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to review the use of the chemical in tires. The Port Gamble S’Klallam and Puyallup tribes and Yurok Tribe, of northern California, asked the agency this year to prohibit the toxic chemical’s use.
“We could not sit idle while 6PPD kills the fish that sustain us,” Joseph L. James, chair of the Yurok Tribe, told The Associated Press. “This lethal toxin has no business in any salmon-bearing watershed.”
The states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut also wrote the EPA, citing the chemical’s threat to their waters and fisheries. Washington state has already begun researching safer alternatives to the chemical and developing methods to test and monitor for the chemicals in the environment.
The EPA granting the petition and recognizing that the chemical poses an unreasonable risk to salmon underscores the need to hold tire companies accountable in the interim for the harm they’re causing threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead species, said Elizabeth Forsyth, senior attorney for Earthjustice.
“In urban areas, highly urban areas — California’s Central Valley, the Puget Sound area, et cetera — the urban runoff contains a brew of toxic chemicals,” said Glen Spain, the executive director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
“It turns out one of the most toxic is 6PPD-q,” Spain said. “The industry has known about this problem for a long time, but they haven’t done anything about it, which is why we are bringing the suit.”
The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association said in a statement it is aware of the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, but as a matter of policy, the association does not comment on ongoing litigation.
“Our members continue to research and develop alternative tire materials that ensure tire performance and do not compromise safety, consistent with our industry’s commitment to sustainability and respect for the environment,” the statement said.
In the early 2000s, scientists began receiving reports of coho in Seattle-area streams, such as Longfellow and Thornton creeks, behaving erratically: swimming at the surface, gasping for air, and tumbling back down the streams, said Nat Scholz of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
About a decade later, researchers zeroed in on the link between stormwater runoff and coho mortality. And in 2020, they found it was 6PPD-quinone causing coho to die before they spawn in their natal streams.
“The coho were telling us that there was some chemical, an emerging contaminant,” Scholz said. “That then led us to this big forensic investigation to find 6PPD-quinone.”
In West Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, Edward Kolodziej, an associate professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and a co-author on the 2020 paper, saw coho fighting for life.
“You’re watching them gasp. They really should breathe in and out the same way that we breathe in and out — chest rises and falls — and in this type of mortality, they stop breathing correctly.”
It’s really sad to see, Kolodziej said. It was motivating.
The chemical is believed to be the second most toxic compound to aquatic organisms.
The chemical is also acutely toxic to both rainbow and steelhead trout, the lawsuit states, and Chinook salmon are also vulnerable to 6PPD-quinone exposure.
When exposed to untreated stormwater runoff, Chinook suffer up to 13% mortality and generally died within one to two days, according to research cited in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit aims to push tire manufacturers to use safer chemical alternatives or to file for a permit for the incidental killing of endangered salmon and fund stormwater cleanup initiatives.
“We’re a nation that put a man on the moon. We figured out how to take lead out of gasoline and still have our cars run,” Forsyth said. “It would astound me that we couldn’t make a tire that doesn’t kill up to 100% of coho salmon returning to their natal streams.”
While stormwater treatment can help reduce toxic concentrations of the chemical in streams, the vast majority of stormwater isn’t treated, Kolodziej said.
“We can’t get to a point where we can clean up our watersheds with treatment only,” Kolodziej said. “You need to dilute or treat that water by around 25-fold before coho salmon start to survive. So you need to remove at least 95% of the 6PPD-quinone runoff before it becomes safe for fish.”
The defendants named in the lawsuit are: Bridgestone Americas, Inc.; Continental Tire the Americas, LLC; Giti Tire (USA), Ltd.; The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.; Hankook Tire America Corp.; Kumho Tire U.S.A., Inc.; Michelin North America, Inc.; Nokian Tyres; Pirelli Tire North America; Sumitomo Rubber North America, Inc.; Toyo Tire Holdings of Americas, Inc.; and Yokohama Tire Corp.
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