ROANOKE, Va. (April 26, 2002)—A massive tire fire that raged out of control in Roanoke has been extinguished, and environmental officials are now dealing with the costs of cleaning up the site.
On March 23, an estimated 3 million to 4 million scrap tires situated in ravines in southern Roanoke County ignited as a result of a nearby brush fire. Investigators later found it was caused by arson, according to Allan Lassiter, manager of Virginia's waste tire program for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Currently, law enforcement officials have no suspects.
The blaze burned for 25 days as firefighters let the pile burn itself out rather than use water on it, Mr. Lassiter explained. In the meantime, environmental officials built dikes at the bottom of the ravines to catch oily run-off. A Texas firm experienced in petroleum fires was brought in to pull the burning tires apart and smother them with dirt, he said. As a result, little run-off flowed from the piles.
The pile and the 160 acres it sits on is owned by Willie Keeling, who has accumulated tires for more than 40 years, Mr. Lassiter said. Mr. Keeling began hauling tires to the property in hopes of starting a retreading business, but “it didn't work out,” so he continued to pick up scrap tires from dealers as his livelihood and discard them on his property, Mr. Lassiter said.
Since Virginia outlawed tire dumping in 1988, Roanoke County, the state police and the DEQ all have tried to force Mr. Keeling to clean up the piles. “He's been to court, he's been found guilty, he's been fined” and sentenced to jail, but because of his age and lack of income, the judge didn't force him to serve the jail sentence, according to Mr. Lassiter.
“He's never been able to pay (cleanup costs). He probably didn't get very much money to take all those tires away, and it was his income, so he spent it,” Mr. Lassiter said.
Ironically, the county and DEQ had agreed to start cleaning up Mr. Keeling's property prior to the fire. The county had just selected a company to perform the cleanup and was planning to sign a contract on March 25, but the fire broke out two days before that, he noted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken over responsibility for cleaning up the site, he said. The agency had approved up to $2 million in federal money if needed for the project, according to an EPA spokeswoman. The dump does not qualify as a Superfund site yet because a Superfund declaration takes a year or two to obtain, Mr. Lassiter said.
As far as what will happen to Mr. Keeling, Mr. Lassiter said that legally, the state can't charge him with any crime. However, if it chooses to, the EPA could fine him.
“The EPA's in the driver's seat,” Mr. Lassiter said.