An illegal dump containing thousands of passenger and heavy truck tires was burning this week in Plum Springs, a stone's throw across the river from Warren County's top visitor attraction.Now the property owner, as well as state and county officials, worry more problems are in the offing.
"These tires were burning underground until this past weekend, and smoke was rolling at times directly across the Barren River, toward Beech Bend Park and Raceway," said J. Mac Yowell, Warren County's public works department director.Actions initiated by the department's Division for Environmental Assistance helped to end the fire Sunday.
Heavy equipment was brought in, tires dug out, and the fire smothered out by the Richardsville Volunteer Fire Department. Firefighters using foam and water on the burning waste tires measured heat within the site at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Kentucky Emergency Response Team and the county's Emergency Management Agency coordinated with equipment operators and firefighters to douse the fire.The burn had been moving silently underground for perhaps as long as two weeks, before the property owner asked for any help from local or state authorities.
"He was cleaning up an overgrown piece of property he'd recently reclaimed and apparently didn't know an outcropping of these buried tires lay in the ground beneath the pile of dried brush and limbs he'd just set afire," said Stan Reagan, Public Works' coordinator for the Division of Environmental Planning and Assistance.
"Several agencies advised him to do what he was already doing - Try to smother it out with loose rock and dirt," Reagan said. "Although the fire never broke into flames, it smoldered underground like burning charcoal, spreading into tires layered into a trench and covered with soil. We estimate these have been here about 45 years."
The landowner removed as many as 3,000 tires still staged for disposal at the site, which has grown to involve two other adjoining property owners. Thousands more tires remain amidst a toxic soup within muddy pit. The site was once a natural drain crevice, which took storm water over the hillside to the river or into a freshwater spring.
"We worry about this for multiple reasons, prime of which is the exposure of area communities to potential harm from several levels," Yowell said.
He noted that the fire could rekindle if hot spots still remain. However, it's more likely that heavy rainfall at any time could wash mud, debris and tire ash into the river.
Also, Yowell said as long as tires remain exposed, they will attract mosquitoes. This poses an elevated nuisance and health threat to nearby Plum Springs, Beech Bend and at least one area horse barn. The Warren County Road Department will be stepping up mosquito spraying at the site, he said.
The Asian tiger mosquito was introduced into the United States in tire casings imported for recapping. Movement of tire casings has spread the species to more than 20 states since 1985. The tiger mosquito is an important disease carrier in Asia. In the United States, it has been found to be infected with LaCrosse encephalitis viruses and West Nile virus, which can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) affecting animals and people.
Costs of removing the tires from the site are unpredictable, Reagan said, citing Warren County's experience in cleaning up hundreds of other dumpsites over years.The size of the tires is another issue – Most are large and heavy truck tires. Each is the equivalent of five passenger tires.
"You'll have to prospect the ground and mine the tires for several days before it's possible to know how many are there for disposal. Consideration must be given to proper disposal of burnt tires and ash, too," Reagan said. "Warren County doesn't have money lying about for this kind of cleanup, and we don't expect these property owners do either."
Yowell said his department, which includes the Division of Storm water Management, will do all that they can to help. Since neither the county nor the current property owners dumped the tires, he's asking for the Fiscal Court to issue a formal resolution asking the state for emergency assistance. Kentucky has for waste tire removal and illegal dump cleanups.
"Without that assistance, it could leave Warren County and its taxpayers on the hook for someone's negligence from long ago," Yowell said. "It's the very reason we try to prevent these things from happening today – you don't want to deal with these a half a century from now."