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Analytical chemistry in hell: the 1990 Hagersville Tire Fire.

In early February of 1990, history's largest tire fire took place near Hagersville, Ont. Between 12- and 14-million tires burned for 17 days, creating hellish conditions for those working on the site. However, the anticipated environmental catastrophe never materialized, according to speakers at a symposium, held on June 6, 199 1, on the fire at the 7411 Canadian Chemical Conference and Exhibition Hamilton, Ont.).

Early in the morning of February 12, 1990, a deliberate act of vandalism began the conflagration, which soon engulfed almost all of the available tires. Dennis Corr of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment explained that tires are "...probably perfect for burning" because of their high-flame temperature and their shape, which allows an abundant supply of air and keeps the fire going. Temperatures at the centre of the tire piles were estimated at almost 20000F.

"After the first three or four days, the whole mass tends to melt down and change from a tire fire, which is burning very fiercely, into a rubber fire which smoulders. Covering it up means that it smoulders even longer," explained Corr. But the melting tires created an even greater problem more than 1-million litres of tire-fire oil. The surface and shallow ground water became contaminated with benzene, toluenes, xylenes, zinc oxide, phenols and ammonia, as well as trace amounts of polychlorinated dioxins and furans. Compounding the problem were the. thousands of litres of water being dumped on the fire by water bombers and the hundreds of fire fighters on site, which threatened to wash the oil into nearby aquifers.

"The quantities of water were incredible," continued Corr. "An inch of rain on the site would give us half-a-million gallons of contaminated water and oil being washed out." Over 300000L of water and foam were eventually dropped by water-bomber. Monitoring wells for gound-water analysis were dug immediately after the fire started, and samples were taken daily. To date, no contamination of deep-ground water has been detected. Local well-water was tested three times a week; no contamination from the fire was detected. Lagoons were built around the fire site to catch surface run-off, which then had to be cleaned in a treatment plant built on-site. "The weather was atrocious," said Corr. It often became so cold that "...the water treatment plant started to freeze solid - so we were getting something like 5000 gallons of activated charcoal contaminated ice blocks, and we had to build a barn round the water treatment plant."

The smoke plume generated by the fire, at one point, forced the evacuation of all inhabitants within a 14-km radius. On the first day of the fire, the plume was visible from as far away as Cleveland, OH. "It was really frightening," Corr said. It was feared that 6 months to a year would be required to put the fire out, while the final cost of firefighting and clean-up could run as high as $150-million. However, the doomsayers were proved wrong: not including policing and the water bombers, the final tab will be approximately $ 10-million. Virtually all of the tire-fire oil was collected. Less than 3000 L was left in cracks and in rocks onsite, and is still being washed out.

Tire-fire oil and particulate matter from the smoke plume were the focus of work carried out by Brian McCarry's, MCIC, group at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ont.). "In spite of the fact that many tire fires have burned," he said, "no one has ever really undertaken a study" of the biochemical impact of the smoke and the oil before.

Using a bioassay-directed fractionation approach, the mutagenic activity of the airborne particulate was found to be comparable to that of air collected in a bar with some 20 smokers smoking. Gas chromatography/ mass spectrometry work is now underway to identify the most toxic constituents of the particulate, thought to be sulphur heterocycles of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Tire-fire oil was found to be less offensive than a substance present in most of our own garages: used-engine oil. Used-motor oil contains 3.5 times more mutagens than an identical volume of tire-fire oil. Each year, millions of litres of the same used-motor oil are disposed of improperly, creating a major environmental problem. By comparison, almost all of the Hagersville oil was recovered.

Another problem, pointed out by Peter Steer of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, is the sheer number of used tires elsewhere: there are some 2-billion used tires in dumps across the United States, and more than 26-million tires are discarded every year in Canada alone. But Steer also presented some good news: 11 days after the start of the fire at Hagersville, levels of polychlorinated dioxins and furans were ...at fairly typical levels, that you would see almost anywhere in Ontario," that is, vanishingly small.

Brendan Birmingham, also of the Ontario environment ministry, further elaborated on the subject of polychlorinated dioxins and furans. Analysis of dioxin mixtures is no simple task: dibenzofurans containing between I and 8 chlorine atoms create 135 isomers, all with similar chromatographic properties. In an interesting twist, spruce needles near the fire site were analyzed for dioxins and furans (air particulate sampling is more common); the amounts in the needles again showed the levels of chlorinated dioxins and furans were within "...typical urban ranges of exposure."

Analysis of solid waste remaining at the tire fire site also gave non-cataclysmic results, according to D. Gevaert of Monenco Consultants Ltd. In the 'burn area' after the fire, there remained about 38000 tons of fire residue and contaminated soil, with a volume of some 20000 cubic metres. Tests revealed high levels of zinc oxide, sulphur and several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but the fire residue can actually be classified as non-hazardous waste and may eventually be disposed of in a landfill. Gevaert also described how bedrock structure and other geological features at the fire site prevented the deep migration of contaminants into the water table.

Currently at the fire site, the clean-up operation is progressively being scaled down and work is well underway on landscape refurbishment: contaminated soil and water have been scraped from the surface and have been replaced with clean fill and top soil. Seventy-five percent of the site's surface area has been re-seeded. Water drainage has been changed to enable direct discharge of clean water, as well as collection and treatment of contaminated water. Some contamination of the shallow-ground water is still apparent. However, plans are being made to pump the shallow groundwater to surface lagoons for purification. Unburnt tires have already been disposed of as part of a rubberized asphalt project, funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Much work still remains in clean-up and smoke particulate analysis, however. In the words of McCarry . ..... the fire is out but not forgotten."
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:74th Canadian Chemical Conference and Exhibition; Hagersville, Ontario
Author:Legzdins, Arnold
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:1125
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