February 12, 2000 will mark the tenth anniversary of the famous Hagersville tire fire in which 14 million scrap tires burned at the Tyre King site in southwestern Ontario for more than 17 days. Yet surprisingly little progress has been made in the decade since to prevent the reoccurrence of such a disaster and at least one illegal scrap-tire dump -- only a few miles from the old Hagersville site -- sits ready to burn.
Though it seemed endless to the 1,700 residents who were evacuated from within a 3-kilometre radius, the Hagersville blaze was doused in record time; a much smaller scrap tire pile in the U.S. had smoldered for seven months before being extinguished. The Hagersville fire pumped tonnes of pollutants into the air and millions of taxpayer dollars were spent afterward cleaning the site and treating soil and groundwater contaminated by oily runoff from melting tires. Upwards of 360,000 litres of oil were recovered during the fire itself.
Ed Straza, the site's owner, had dragged his feet over work orders from Ontario's Ministry of the Environment such as segregating the tires into smaller piles. Mr. Straza said compliance would bankrupt him and his appeals of the work orders dragged on for two years before the fire struck. After the blaze the Ontario Fire Marshall's office and other agencies announced that policies would be changed to prevent such situations in future.
It's important to remember the environment ministry's complicity in the Hagersville tire fire. The dump had operated for 25 years and, despite previous fires, had been encouraged by the ministry to take in more scrap tires. The Environmental Appeal Board finally ruled on the work orders in October 1989 and told Tyre King that it had to take greater fire prevention measures, but it also recommended to the environment ministry that it should assist dump operators get rid of their tires and support recycling demonstration projects. (By March 1990 the ministry had only allocated $16-million for tire recycling, despite the fact that it was taking in $40-million each year from a special tire tax.)
Fast forward to today and what does one discover? Nothing has changed.
In November I drove through the rural area just west of Hamilton and came across an illegal tire dump that made the old Tyre King property look like a palace. Ironically, the dump was near Wilsonville, only a few minutes west of Hagersville. Thousands of tires were piled in jumbled heaps without legally mandated fire-separation corridors. Tires literally spilled from the unfenced property into the roadside ditch. As I walked past what turned out to be an unoccupied farmhouse in the middle -- surrounded by junkyard dogs that bared their fangs -- I discovered tires stacked inside an old timber barn. Beyond this great shredded mounds of black rubber extended for hundreds of feet toward the rear of the property. A trespasser could easily have lit an oil-soaked rag and torched the place with little fear of being discovered.
A firefighter colleague of mine lives in the area and says the authorities know about the dump.
"That's one of the sites operated by Otterwood Tire," he said. "The local fire chief knows about it but says there's not much he can do."
I discovered that Otterwood Tire also stores scrap tires in a decrepit building on Mohawk Street in the nearby City of Brantford. The asbestos-ridden building (which was recently condemned) is immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood.
According to reports published in the Brantford Expositor the owners of this illegal urban dump, Otterwood Tire's John and Cindy Brillinger, had disregarded notices from the environment ministry to get rid of the tires. The first order was issued in October 1997 but the stockpile only grew, eventually peaking at about 40,000 tires. The site came to public attention in December 1997 when it caught on fire. A massive cleanup afterward saw some 59,000 litres of contaminated water taken away. Charges were laid in March 1998 and guilty pleas were entered in November 1998.
That's when the waltz began.
The Brillingers appeared in court over and over again and each time requested and obtained one-month extensions on tire removal deadline. Excuses included trucks breaking down, dumps closing and cash shortages. By July 29, 1999 the judge was fed up and passed sentence, at which point the Brillinger's lawyer proposed that no fine should be imposed, arguing that the numerous court appearances (which the Brillingers had requested) constituted punishment enough! Ultimately the Brillingers were fined $8,200 for violating the Environmental Protection Act. At their last court appearance, the Brillingers' lawyer said that the Whitby site where the tires had been taken for shredding is also now under investigation.
The illegal dump on Mohawk Street today contains less than 500 tires -- the legal threshold for classification as a waste site. But Otterwood Tire's other dump near Wilsonville remains covered in tires.
No one knows how many of these scrap tire dumps lurk across the province, but one thing is certain: these dumps are the inevitable byproduct of the province's failure to act. Ontario generates the equivalent of 10 million scrap passenger tires each year, more than all the other provinces combined except Quebec. Yet, apart from Newfoundland, Ontario is the only province without a used tire management program. The other provinces currently divert in excess of 80 per cent of their scrap tires from storage in dumps, and recycling rates above 70 per cent are the norm.
It's time for Ontario to learn from its neighbors, recycle its scrap tires and rid the province of these unsightly firetraps before another Hagersville tragedy occurs.