In 2019, a Dublin Ohio businessman bought a failing century-old Youngstown company that provides heating and cooling to dozens of downtown businesses. But David Ferro now has a bigger plan.  It involves a process to convert scrap tires into energy. 

The technology is called the Thermolyzer and his company is SOBE Thermal Energy Systems.

It’s got a lot of people concerned the plant will generate toxic air pollution right in the heart of the city and that it won’t be properly regulated. 

The ‘101 West’ team, part of our 21 News watchdog brand, spent months investigating and talking with experts, officials, and the owner of the SOBE Thermal Energy Systems to learn more about the process and the concerns.


“I immediately recognized that it was a very complicated issue, but a very important one, so then I started researching what is pyrolysis? I had never heard of pyrolysis before,” said Youngstown resident, city council president and a member of SOBE Concerned Citizens Tom Hetrick.

Pyrolysis is the heating of materials – commonly referred to as feed stock – inside a chamber with so little oxygen that flames are not present.

SOBE plans to take scraps of tires, about 3 inches or less, and then superheat the tire chips without air to extract a gas - known as synthesis gas - or syngas. Then – SOBE will take the byproduct, syn gas – and burn the gas in boilers to produce hot water. This will create heat for SOBE’s 30-plus downtown clients.  

Downtown is where the new operation will be located – smack in the middle of a central business district.   The site is just off Fifth Avenue near the heavily student populated Youngstown State University and a county jail that houses hundreds of inmates. City of Youngstown officials do not welcome the project uncritically.

“I don’t think you’re going to see us just sit down and say oh well, the issued a permit it’s a done deal.  If that’s not the case, we want to focus in my main goal is the health and safety of this community and that’s what we are going to continue to focus on,” said Youngstown Mayor Tito Brown.

One former US EPA Administrator tells us nearly a dozen so-called waste-to-energy facilities have opened up around the United States in the past decade… but experts we spoke with say not all have succeeded, and many have struggled to find a way to profit from the process.

One Former US EPA Administrator tells us nearly a dozen so-called waste-to-energy facilities have opened up around the United States in the past decade… but experts we spoke with say not all have succeeded, and many have struggled to find a way to profit from the process.

Right now, the Ohio EPA says there are eight pyrolysis facilities that operate in Ohio and how they apply the pyrolysis technology differs in each case. In other words, they are doing pyrolysis but not necessarily in the same way or with the same raw materials. 

Comparing operations and data from other existing plants is not apples to apples. 

Chemical engineer Dr. Christian Roy has been researching the science of pyrolysis for decades and manages his own pyrolysis operation based in Quebec.  Roy says if managed carefully, there are many benefits to certain pyrolysis processes that can help with local waste pollution and recover useful materials – But Roy says there are potential health and safety hazards to look out for with such a complex process.

“You have to be cautious in saying that all pyrolysis processes are safe... it depends on the feedstock, the temperature that is used. Certainly that is of concern,” Roy said.

“The best place to have a pyrolysis plant though is away from houses because once in a while if you open barrels, if there is a spill it will smell and that’s not pleasant.  So, it has to go to an industrial plant, certainly not close to houses.  I would not recommend to have any pyrolysis plant in the middle of a city, certainly not,” Roy added.

City Council President Hetrick told 21 News, “We in Youngstown are being used as guinea pigs. and given the fact that this is new, untested technology, I don’t believe that it should be located here... I firmly believe this is an industrial type process that does not belong in the middle of a city of 60,000 people.”


SOBE has been given a draft permit by the Ohio EPA, meaning there’s just one step left before it could receive final approval to begin operating. 

However, a former Federal EPA administrator is skeptical. Judith Enck served for 7 years as the Region 2 administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the entity that makes nationwide laws for waste-to-energy facilities and oversees the state’s role to permit plants. 

Enck has since moved on to become the founder and president of Beyond Plastics, an organization working to end plastics pollution.

She told 21 News that in 2019 the Ohio legislature passed a law that created a loophole for pyrolysis plants. So now, the Ohio EPA no longer considers shredded tires solid waste.  That means pyrolysis plants in Ohio are now exempt from stricter federal restrictions imposed on solid waste or hazardous waste disposal facilities, such as the incinerator in East Liverpool.

It is solid waste, but the Ohio state legislature decided to deregulate this to a degree. And that is a red flag. This should be covered by solid waste regulations. And because of lobbying at the state capitol. It’s not. I think in situations like this, the public should not let their common sense be taken away from them,” Enck said.

“Old waste tires are solid waste, no matter what the legislature designated it as. Old plastic is plastic waste,” Enck added.

And while SOBE will conduct its own emissions monitoring and share the data with the Ohio EPA, this type of self-reporting testing is not uncommon, even for new technologies.

Lee Bell, a pyrolysis expert from Australia, agrees. 

“It’s very rare to have a situation where you would have officials coming down and conducting testing unless there has been a major incident.  A fire, a spill an explosion.  Then you would have regulators coming down and investigating the situation but they don’t come down and do the testing, generally it is self-reported by the industry,” Bell said.

The Ohio EPA told 21 News they will step in if a problem develops.

Tim Fischer with the Ohio EPA Air Pollution Control, Northeast District Office said, “If it’s found that a pollutant is exceeded, then we have to evaluate that to see is that a violation?  Is there something they could have done to prevent that?  Or is that really just the process and how it’s going to operate? And we would have to reevaluate that? Is it safe for the area?”

21 News spoke with two pyrolysis experts about whether they think there is potential for the release of dangerous toxins.  Both said it could happen if equipment is not managed diligently throughout the entire life of a facility.

Lee Bell of the International Pollutants & Elimination Network, National Toxics Network, said, “I’ve spoken with many scientists who have spent decades developing technologies who said they couldn’t get it to work without dioxin emissions just because of the fact that there is oxygen in the waste feedstock that they’re putting in there.  They can’t keep it out completely.”

“A tire is being turned into light compounds like benzene, toluene, and xylene which are undesirable molecules. We’ve banned benzine from gasoline in the past. If for some reason there are some molecules of benzene are not burned into the process, it will find its way into the air,” Roy told 21 News.

Another concern haunting the project comes from the Youngstown fire chief, who is worried his department might not have all the resources to handle a fire, should the shredded tires ignite either here at the plant or in transit from where the tires are reportedly going to be processed in Lowellville. 

Youngstown Fire Chief Barry Finley said, “We could be fighting that rubber fire for days using millions of gallons of water and hundreds of gallons of foam and I mean could we do it?  Yes, but it just be logistically, a nightmare.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this and all I can do is wait until this plan opens and hope that the CEO is forthcoming with everything that we’re going to all the questions that we’re going to have in all the questions that any entity is going to have,” Finley said.

The fire chief added, “Not saying that I won’t believe him because he knows more about it than I do...But I’m the fire chief, I can’t look at it through his eyes. I have to look at okay, I understand you’re saying that it’s safe. But what if, honestly speaking, what if what if something happens up here that’s never happened anywhere else?” 


The man behind SOBE Thermal Energy Solution’s plan to build a conversion technology plant in downtown Youngstown is David Ferro, the CEO of SOBE. Ferro faces an onslaught of opposition – everything from citizen protests to a resolution by the city council opposing the project.  21 News’ Madison Tromler recently talked to Ferro who stands by the technology – and says it’s safe.  This is the first time Ferro has sat down for an in-depth interview.  For clarity, this is the transcription from that interview:

Madison Tromler: Mr. Ferro, thank you for sitting down with us.

David Ferro: Sure, of course. Thank you.


Tromler: Now as the CEO of SOBE, you’ve heard all the concerns, you’ve been to the meetings, you’ve heard about what people are saying about SOBE. So what can you say to the Youngstown community to ensure this is safe?

Ferro: Well, I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. I mean, we’re talking 25 years of being in the energy business providing services to Fortune 100 companies, teaching them how to be more efficient, more cost effective, and how they manage their energy infrastructure and manage their energy equipment. The last thing I’m going to do is do something that’s dirty, or pollutants or provide harm to the environment or even people. So, my whole life has been about providing value in that space in a safe and reliable way. So, the issue you really have here is, is a lack of understanding the differences between technology and not admitting what we don’t know. Right? So, if you don’t know something is easy just to kind of lump things together and say, well, that’s this, when we’re really that and, and so there’s, there’s a complete difference in the technology that we’re deploying versus the pyrolysis that is traditionally being talked about here. And there hasn’t been, in my opinion, a good amount of effort, put forth the understanding, actually, what we do.


Tromler: This this has never been done before in the United States on a commercial scale. So, you have no track record? How can you ensure people though, that despite that, this is safe?

Ferro: Yeah, because we do have a track record, just because it doesn’t occur here in the United States, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So, in Germany, we do have a facility that has been in operations for a very long time, 20 plus years has been permitted by the regulatory front there. And we do expect a positive reply from not only the mayor of where that facility is located, but also the regulatory front that approved that facility over 20 plus years ago, no explosions, no environmental issues whatsoever for over 20 years of continuous testing. So, we do have a track record, it’s just people here don’t know. And so, when you don’t know something, you immediately jumped to conclusions. Instead of finding out the facts. ... So, we had a 44-ton unit and operations in Germany. So, you know, when you when you get past a five and 10 ton unit and go into a 44 ton or higher, you’re commercialized. It just hasn’t been here, mostly because of the market. You know, the market kind of dictated where pyrolysis would fit best, financially, right? Because whenever you look at these types of projects, it’s really a financial equation that most people are looking at. We did not look at it that way. We looked at it from an environmental perspective.


Tromler: And just to clarify that commercial scale that you mentioned, it was commercial? Done Germany with the 44 tons.. Is that equal to what’s going to be done here in terms of size?

Ferro: No, it’s half the size… yeah.


Tromler: It’s not unusual for industries to self report, certain issues like emissions. But that does involve involve people trusting you. How can you assure the people of Youngstown that this self-reporting will be done as transparently honestly and thoroughly as possible?

Ferro: Well, I mean, you’re speaking to about integrity of what we do. And it is, you know, a little bit of a slap in the face when people challenge that without knowing who they’re talking about. But we don’t walk into that with the idea that the EPA is just saying, we’re trusting you. We are very focused on data. And our PLC, our control system that will be overseeing all of the automation of this will be tracking a lot of sensitive information that the EPA is going to want to see. So I don’t think it’s really self-reporting so much as the way it was, I think was a little bit taken out of context. There’s going to be a lot of involvement from the EPA, and there’s going to be a lot of data sharing that we have to provide them under confidentiality, of course. to protect our interest of our technology, but the data that can be publicly known as the emissions, you know, the pollutants, you know, anything that takes us out of our intended operational scope.


Tromler: There’s a lot of experts out there who have expert opinions. And we did speak with some experts, and they say, a plant like this should be farther away from a downtown area. Are you willing to go above and beyond what’s required of you to ensure that this is as safe as possible?

Frero: Well, I think it starts with the expert that you talk to. ...Are they the experts in the pyrolysis that are operating in other states today? That’s not applicable here. So, you can’t take just because you saw a one pyrolysis system operate, you can’t take the operational characteristics of that and apply it to this system. So, until somebody actually says they spoke to me, they spoke to the distributor of the technology or the inventor of the technology directly. To find out why this is different. I really don’t accept them as an expert.


Tromler: So, no concerns to people, you’re saying live nearby, they shouldn’t be concerned?

Ferro: They really shouldn’t. This will be an extremely clean, safe operational system. In fact, our emissions are way down. And they continue and will continue to stay down. So, you asked if I will go above and beyond? Yeah, we will, because we’re already doing that. We’re going above and beyond, because we’re going to actually put carbon capture technology on top of our emissions to further reduce our CO2. Even though we’re way below history here. I mean, this system used to put out over 1,000 tons a year, we’re not even a fraction of that, and will continue to be a fraction, we went from a major source from an environmental down to a minor. And we’ll stay in that space with the Thermalizer.


Tromler: How closely Will you work with the fire chief to ensure there’s a fire safety plan in place in the event of any kind of fire? Whether that be a chemical or tire chip fire of any kind? How closely Will you work with them?

Ferro: We’ll work with them as close as they want to work. You know, we’re certainly going to make the facility to code at a minimum. And, and there’s a lot of fire suppression that goes into this, a lot of fire protection that we have to do to bring this facility up to code. Right? Because, you know, it hasn’t been up to code for a very long time, right? It’s been grandfathered in. There are no fire sprinklers in that building today, the you know, the 1911, 1906. But there will be, we’re going to install that. We’re going to have fire suppression and and fire protection for the tire chips, we’ll have the same thing in where the Thermalizer will be stored. And so yeah, no we’ll be up to code. We’ll work with the fire marshal to understand if there’s anything of interest on his part after he sees the fire protection code. But we’ll design that through a professional fire protection agency.


Tromler: And working with the local fire department...I know the fire chief mentioned that of course, they’ve never dealt with a plant like this before. Would you be willing to work with him and provide any additional resources if need be?

Ferro: Well, that’s a discussion that we can sit down and have a talk about, I don’t know what the deficiencies are there. That’s not my area of expertise. That’s his. So, sitting... certainly willing to sit down and listen to what they need, what they feel they need or what deficiencies they have and how they would treat or manage this facility. But I’m quite confident that we will never need the fire department to come to that facility. We would be able to do anything we need to do ourselves.


Tromler: Is there anything else do you want to add Mr. Ferro?

Ferro: I just think that it would be, it would be better if we actually spent more time talking about the differences, understanding the differences, instead of yelling and screaming about what we think the differences are. There’s a lot of folks that are well educated people. But because they have either their own conflict, or maybe some political conflict, that they’re in interjecting into this environment, and it’s unfair, it’s unfair to the people that work for SOBE, it’s unfair for the people that will be working for SOBE in the future. It’s unfair for the community in Youngstown to for to potentially try to forego a revolutionary innovative technology that can bring a lot of change a lot of jobs. And we talked about our city council members, right? They said $16,000, what’s the average salary? That’s what they were talking about. In the meeting that was the president of our city council talking about the average salary of $16,000. We’re way north of that. And we’re bringing a lot of jobs to the community, and we’re going to clean the environment. So, let’s focus on what we’re actually doing. And not say things that aren’t actually going to happen. And that’s part of the problem that we’re dealing with here.


Tromler: Clearly, we know, we have a big problem here, when it comes to the pollution from waste in the United States. And I know I saw a number that says 280 million tires are discarded every year in the United States. Do you feel you’ve been unfairly characterized as a villain in this community… when in reality, your goals are all environmentally minded?

Ferro: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I mean, sometimes you can, if you get emotional about it, you could certainly feel that way. I think people in generally, in general, believe what they’re saying. But it doesn’t mean that’s right. And so, you know, I just think there’s a lack of willingness to learn. And when you’re in that kind of a space, it’s very easy to shout. You know, the simple things, you’re not doing the work, you’re not doing the homework and Anita Davis, you didn’t do the homework. She didn’t do her homework, the entire city council. And the mayor did not do their homework. I’m offering the opportunity for them to do their homework, willing to sit down with them and explain why this isn’t a bad situation for Youngstown. It’s actually a positive one. But they have to be willing to sit down and do those things and to this day, without me coming to them and say let’s sit down, they haven’t come to me to say, let’s sit down and figure this out.


Ferro told 21 News he has no doubts this plant will officially be up and running sometime next year, saying construction is underway. After everything is installed, Ferro will have to prove to the Ohio EPA that SOBE operations are running smoothly.

And as far as Ferro’s invitation to sit down with anyone interested from the city – Mayor Brown said there is nothing the SOBE CEO can say that will change his mind. Brown says he’s still exploring what action the city can take – but says nothing is off the table. 

Editor's note:

“101 West,’ is a new program produced at 101 West Boardman Street, the locally owned studios of WFMJ since 1953. The program is a production of 21 News and is a way to give viewers longer-format investigative watchdog reports. Future episodes also include more topics per show, including some people of interest and other stories of importance to the people of the Valley.

If you’d like to email us an in-depth idea that you’d like us to investigate, send it to [email protected].