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New law aims to bar repeat of Hoopeston fire

Debris gone from site, though traces of fine dust still permeate area.

HOOPESTON — Pat Dooley remembers being “half asleep” one year ago when her son-in-law came rushing into her house at 5 a.m., telling her to evacuate because of a massive fire in the 400,000-square-foot tire-recycling facility behind her home.

“The flames were so big,” said Dooley, 79, whose house was spared. “Oh it was bad. I don’t want to go through that any more.”

Dooley was one of several in Hoopeston who had to be evacuated June 19, 2013, due to heavy, thick black smoke and flames threatening residences nearby the J&R Used Tire Recycling facility at 103 Maple St., where hundreds of thousands of tires that had been stockpiled for recycling caught fire.

It started when a spark from machinery being operated by employees ignited tire dust. The black plume of smoke could be seen for miles in all directions, and more than 20 area fire departments and 100-plus firefighters fought the blaze for days.

On Thursday, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation co-sponsored by state Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, requiring more oversight of large used-tire processing and storage facilities.

According to Quinn’s office, had this law been in effect a year ago, the tire fire in Hoopeston may not have happened.

Paul Purseglove with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was in Hoopeston on Thursday. He said the agency had an enforcement case against the owner of J&R, Rodney Rogers, because he had too many tires stockpiled, among other violations. But the facility was not shut down.

The new legislation beefs up the IEPA’s enforcement authority by requiring facilities with more than 10,000 passenger tires on site or that process more than 500 tons of used tires a year to get a solid-waste permit to operate. The facilities must, among other things, allow inspections and submit documentation, including a tire storage plan and a contingency plan, to the IEPA. If facilities don’t comply, they can be ordered to cease operating.

Purseglove said the agency has required such assurances from these types of facilities in the past, but without a permitting process, the agency’s ability to enforce regulations was complicated and difficult.

In the last 20 years, Illinois has had six major tire fires at used-tire storage and processing facilities. In the environmental field for the last 30 years, Purseglove said he’s not seen a site like the one in Hoopeston get cleaned up so well. Normally, the sites languish, he said.

But in Hoopeston, all of the debris has been removed from the site. Left behind is a huge concrete slab on which the former industrial building rested. With IEPA oversight, Rogers hired a private contractor that cleaned up the site, separating out what could be salvaged for recycling, like the metal, and taking the rest to a landfill. The revenue from the salvageable items helped pay for cleanup, along with Rogers’ insurance, Purseglove said. The new legislation will ensure that operators have finances in place, like bonds, to pay for the ramifications of a fire.

Purseglove said the IEPA has a lawsuit against Rogers seeking reimbursement of the agency’s expenses during the fire, when federal and state EPA officials responded to contain runoff, and since then, as IEPA officials have continued oversight of the cleanup process.

The legislation also allows the IEPA to re-establish a program to develop new markets for used and waste tires. Purseglove said Illinois generates 13 million scrap tires a year, and something must be done with them. He said new markets need to be established for those tires, so facilities that gather them are processing them into new products or sending them to other users rather than stockpiling massive amounts.

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About four months after the Hoopeston fire, Rogers reopened his J&R Used Tire Service at the former General Motors foundry in Tilton. In October, Rogers began operating in a 12,000-square-foot area of a 125,000-square-foot former GM building at 585 N. J St., a site he’s leasing from Agracel, an Effingham company that owns the former GM site. But Rogers is not stockpiling the number of tires he was in Hoopeston. Instead he’s bringing in about 10,000 tires a day from clients in Illinois and Indiana, processing them quickly and shipping them out.

Purseglove said IEPA is monitoring Rogers’ operation monthly, and confirmed that he’s not amassing large amounts of scrap rubber.

Although the former J&R site in Hoopeston reveals no hint of the enormous fire one year ago, Purseglove said it’s not yet been determined whether the accident caused long-term contamination of soil or groundwater in the area.

On June 12, he said a private consultant hired by Rogers took 30 soil borings at the site as well as samples from eight water wells.

Those are being analyzed for contamination. If any is detected, Purseglove said that either action will have to be taken to correct that or limitations in regard to soil and groundwater will be placed on the property. All of the surrounding residences are on the Hoopeston city’s water system, but Purseglove said it’s the IEPA’s responsibility to ensure the groundwater is still useable.

Even if the tests don’t reveal contamination, Purseglove said, there could be further testing to ensure no problems. The ultimate goal is for the IEPA to issue Rogers a “no further remediation required” letter that would essentially release the property for him to do what he wants with it.

“We’d like to see it developed into something,” Purseglove said.

Another concern, he said, is the trace amounts of very fine black carbon dust that remain on the site and still coat area properties when the wind blows. Purseglove said the agency has asked Rogers to bring in a truck with a large vacuum to clean the surface of the concrete and remove that last fine layer of carbon dust.

Dooley said she was told soon after the fire that local residences would be power-washed to remove the black dust, but that never happened. She said the black dust was all over her property and her neighbors’ as well, and it would get tracked into the house. Even though she has city water, Dooley said she doesn’t drink her water and buys bottled water instead.

Hoopeston Mayor Bill Crusinberry said the IEPA officials overseeing the cleanup have kept him well-informed throughout the process, which has gone well.

“I do know the owner and IEPA have worked hand in hand to make sure it’s done in a methodical and environmentally-friendly manner,” said Crusinberry, who feels confident the agency won’t release the site until it’s confirmed that soil and groundwater are safe. “The contractor doing the clean up couldn’t have done a better job. It’s been a long process to clean up this site, but it went a lot better than anybody ever anticipated.”

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