WESTLEY, Calif.—Firefighters have prevented a major tire fire at California's largest dump from spreading, but environmental officials most likely will need to wait months or even a year to clean up the site. The fire, thought to have been touched off by lightning at about 4 a.m. on Sept. 22, ignited all but an estimated 1 million of the pile's 7 million tires, sending heavy, black smoke more than 1,500 feet skyward.
The pile is located in a ravine near Westley, a rural town 40 miles east of San Jose and about 70 miles south of Sacramento in rural Stanislaus County.
About 100 firefighters from the county, the California State Department of Forestry and the county Department of Environmental Resources sprayed the flames, but then stopped to limit run-off from the pile. Using bulldozers, crews created fire breaks to prevent the blaze from spreading.
No injuries were reported, but the county issued a public health advisory Sept. 23.
On Sept. 27, a grass fire is believed to have been ignited from the hot pyrolytic oils that drained from the burning tire piles, said a spokesman with the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the lead agency coordinating cleanup efforts. That fire burned more than 1,000 acres before being contained.
Environmental officials have tested air quality at the site and found no hydrocarbons, according to the county. Winds on the first day blew smoke away from populated areas and posed minimal threats to Interstate 5, located adjacent to the site, the spokesman said.
Oily run-off flowed into retaining ponds but didn't contaminate a nearby creek that flows into the San Joaquin River, he said.
About 80,000 gallons of oil were vacuumed from the ponds and will be stored in tanker trucks until it is determined if the oil is recyclable, the county said.
However, before monitoring groundwater contamination, officials will need to wait until the fire is out. That could take a year if it is anything like the 1998 tire fire in nearby Tracy, Calif., where a 7-million blaze at a tire dump operated by S.F. Royster's Tire Co. continues to smolder. EPA officials have yet to assess that site's cleanup needs.
The property containing the Westley tire piles is owned by Ed Filbin, who has collected tires there since the 1950s. At one point during the 1980s, the site had accumulated 30 million to 40 million tires, the spokesman said.
He declined to say what enforcement action the board will take against Mr. Filbin because its legal counsel still is examining different options, including criminal and civil penalties, fines and reimbursement for cleanup costs.
Mr. Filbin told Tire Business he left the tire recycling industry 10 or 11 years ago and no longer owns the tires at the site. He declined to comment on whether he would pay for the fire's cleanup, but said he and his attorneys ``plan on cooperating with all agencies to the best of our ability.''
The Westley pile became a fuel source in 1987 when Oxford Energy Corp. began operating a tires-to-energy plant adjacent to the dump. Falling electricity prices during the mid-1990s caused Oxford Energy to go bankrupt and split into two companies—Oxford Tire Recycling of Northern California Inc., a tire hauler that operated the pile, and Modesto Energy Limited Partners (MELP), owner/operator of the power plant.
MELP charged Oxford tipping fees for tires Oxford hauled to the site. In 1997, Oxford disputed a $16-per-ton tipping fee as too expensive and ceased payments. MELP was forced to burn tires directly from the pile for free.
The CIWMB entered the dispute, ordering Oxford to stop accepting scrap tires at the site until it resumed disposing of them in MELP's burners.
The CIWMB had permitted Oxford to keep operating the pile with the assurance that it would decrease the pile's size within a specific timetable. But Oxford failed to comply and the board revoked its permit last year. The recycler then went out of business.
As the dump's landowner, Mr. Filbin was included in all permits and enforcement orders issued by the board, the spokesman said. After Oxford went out of business, the CIWMB issued a new cleanup order to Mr. Filbin, who protested and asked for a board hearing.
However, the CIWMB unanimously reaffirmed that enforcement order in July.