Bridgestone to close plant after severing ties with Ford

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WASHINGTON (AP) Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. announced Wednesday that it will close the Decatur, Ill., plant that produced most of the 6.5 million tires the company was forced to recall last summer.

The tire maker sent a six-month notice of its plan to representatives of the United Steelworkers of America. It plans to close the plant by Dec. 31.

About 1,500 Bridgestone-Firestone employees and contractors work at the plant. About 450 other Decatur workers have been laid off since the recall.

Union and plant officials were meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the situation and unavailable to comment.

Bridgestone-Firestone chief executive John Lampe said he feels "rotten, terrible" about the closing, but promised the company would live up to its contractual agreements with the workers.

"I guess when I took this job I knew it wasn't going to be easy and there would be decisions I wouldn't like to make," he said in a telephone interview from Tokyo. "The first was layoffs, which I hated, and the next was the difficult decision to end our relationship with Ford Motor Co. And I don't think either one of those were as tough as this one."

The Decatur plant uses a process known as pelletizing, in which rubber pellets are blended with a lubricant to create the rubber that coats the steel belts of tires. Other plants use rubber slabs, which require less lubricant. The company found the lubricant apparently can cause a tire breakdown.

At least 203 deaths and more than 700 injuries have been linked to Firestone tire failures in the United States. Many involved rollovers of the Ford Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle, which had Firestone tires as standard equipment.

Bridgestone-Firestone has insisted all Wilderness AT tires made at other plants are safe, but last month Ford announced it would replace all 13 million Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles because of safety concerns.

That came a day after Bridgestone-Firestone announced it was ending a nearly century-long relationship with Ford because of what it said was Ford's refusal to acknowledge design flaws with the Explorer that were partly responsible for the rollovers. Ford says the Explorer is safe and the tires were the sole reason for the accidents.

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