After skimming along the surface of Lake Erie and scooping up 1,400 gallons of water each, the three water bombers roared north towards their target last week: the smouldering piles of 14 million used tires burning near the southern Ontario town of Hagersville. As each aircraft approached the site, the pilots brought the planes down to an altitude of about 100 feet, creating a thunderous roar before dropping their loads on the flaming piles of tires. The low-level aerial assault began almost 10 days after the huge fire, which police said was deliberately set, started. But despite a combined attack by a 40-member team of firefighters, and operators of water bombers, bulldozers and backhoes, government experts said that the fire could burn for at least another two weeks. Said James Brook of the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office: “What we’re doing is hard work and old-fashioned firefighting. It’s a slow, hard process.”
For the first week that the tires were ablaze, environmental activists described the conflagration at the dump for discarded tires as one of the worst disasters in Ontario history. One expert on tire recycling predicted that by melting the tires, which are made mostly of synthetic rubber, the fire could release up to 5.5 million gallons of oil—half as much as the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaskan waters in March, 1989. But last week, Ontario environment ministry officials said that those projections are exaggerated. They said that by creating a set of ditches and lagoons around the burning tires, they had trapped more than 106,000 gallons of oil produced by the meltdown. Workers then pumped the oil into tanker trucks, which took it to an Esso Petroleum Canada refinery at nearby Nanticoke.
The blaze focused attention on the worrying problem posed by the huge numbers of tires that are regularly discarded in North America. Every year, 20 million used car and truck tires are abandoned in Canada, and 85 per cent of them end up in municipal landfill sites or privately owned dumps. In the United States, an estimated 240 million used tires are discarded annually. Said Denis Corr, chief of air quality for the Ontario environment ministry: “The recycling market is not big enough to absorb all the tires that we as a society throw out every year.”
At the same time, government officials acknowledged that the Hagersville fire, at a dump
owned by Edward Straza, 43, posed potential threats to the air, surface water and groundwater in the area. David Guscott, an acting assistant deputy minister in the Ontario environment ministry, said that the smoke contained
petrochemical products including benzene, a suspected carcinogen, and toluene, which can cause kidney and liver damage. Guscott said that readings taken by provincial environmental officials in the area of the fire revealed only traces of the contaminants in the smoke.
In the early stages of the fire, provincial and municipal officials expressed concern over possible health risks to local residents. For several days after it started, the fire gave off huge black clouds of smoke, visible from 16 km away. Municipal and provincial government officials responded by evacuating 1,700 people from their homes. By late last week, all but nine families, whose homes are in the immediate vicinity of the fire, had been permitted to return.
Some experts said that the oil from the
melting tires could pose a serious threat to groundwater in the area. During the first few days of the fire, before workmen dug the ditches to drain the oil, contaminated water from the dump ran into the nearby Sandusk Creek. Guscott said that, as a result, water from the creek, which drains into Lake Erie, has been declared unsafe for human or animal consumption. He added that water samples were being subjected to laboratory tests, but government officials had not yet found any evidence of groundwater contamination caused by oil seeping into the soil.
During the past two decades, the Hagersville dump, operating under the name Tyre King Tyre Recycling Ltd., has become the largest of its kind in Ontario. Companies across the province paid Straza to get rid of old tires.
Neighboring farmers, homeowners and volunteer members of the Hagersville fire department told Maclean ’s that they became increasingly alarmed at the possibility of a fire as they watched piles of tires grow to heights of up to 20 feet and eventually cover 11 acres of the 17acre site. Said Robert Shoup, Hagersville’s deputy fire chief: “We knew that if it ever caught fire, we were going to be there for days.”
Ontario environment ministry officials also began expressing concern about the mountain of tires and attempted, unsuccessfully, to make Straza comply with its regulations for tire dumps. In 1987, the ministry ordered Straza to separate the tires into a number of smaller piles with fire lanes between them, to erect a six-foot chain link fence around the site and to
build a 100,000-gallon water reservoir for fighting possible fires. But Straza fought the orders in court and refused to comply with them until his appeals had been heard. Last year, the Environmental Appeal Board upheld the order. Straza then launched an appeal through the Divisional Court of Ontario.
His case was still before the courts when the fire erupted shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 12. Hagersville fire chief Ross Slote said that, by the time his men were on the scene at 1:30 a.m., the blaze was already out of control. Volunteer firefighters from towns near Hagersville battled the fire for a week before municipal officials asked the Ontario government for help. Both the volunteers and the 40 ministry firefighters brought in to fight the blaze used the same technique. First, backhoes broke the burning heaps of tires into small piles. Then, the firefighters doused the piles with a combination of water and fire-suppressing foam.
The water bombers, owned by the provincial government and stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, joined the fight Feb. 21 and gave the operation added punch. Officials estimated that, in an eight-hour period, the three water bombers in use could dump a total of 400,000 gallons of water and foam on the fire. But Brook pointed out that the water bombers and ground crews had to co-ordinate their actions carefully. He said that if the aircraft and ground crews were to dump too much water on the fire, the ditches and lagoons used to retrieve the oil flushed out of the tires would overflow. Said Brook: “This is still all trial and error. It’s a balancing act.”
Indeed, almost everyone involved in battling the Hagersville blaze noted that there are no proven techniques for extinguishing tire fires because very few have occurred. A fire in 1983 at a dump containing about nine million tires near Winchester, Va., burned for several months. Government officials there allowed the fire to bum itself out after unsuccessful attempts to extinguish it. Shoup said that the fire department received calls from people all over North America with ideas for putting out the fire. Bob Thomas, a spokesman for the Ontario ministry of natural resources, added that businessmen from around the world had contacted the ministry offering their products or services. Said Thomas: “Imagine the promotional value in being able to say your product put out the Hagersville fire.”
Once the fire is extinguished, provincial officials, and perhaps owner Straza, will face the task of cleaning up the tire dump. Guscott said that the rubble from the fire may be dumped in a regular landfill site if laboratory tests show that it will not give off toxic contaminants. Otherwise, it will be deposited in a special hazardous-waste site. Meanwhile, the dozens of farmers and homeowners who live near the dump faced the frightening prospect of contaminated wells and drinking water. “We don’t know whether we’ll even be able to live there after this is over,” said John Easton, a local resident. Putting out the fire may only be the beginning of a long and painful struggle.
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