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Two Months After Massive Tire Fire in Louisville, It's Time to Assess the Environmental Damage

In the wake of a massive tire fire in November that burned for a day and left residents in southwestern Louisville under a shelter-in-place, the company responsible is beginning a series of steps to assess the environmental damage.

Liberty Tire was fined $40,000 by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinetin an Agreed Order dated Dec. 22.The document lays out the company’s failures to implement safety measures that would have prevented the fire—things like limiting the size of tire piles and establishing fire breaks. They’re only supposed to have 100,000 tires on site. At the time of the fire, regulators estimated the facility had about one million additional tires.

These were problems for months, and regulators kept giving Liberty Tire more time to comply. Division of Waste Management inspectors issued a Notice of Violation to the company in June. They went back in August and September, and noted that the problems hadn't been fixed. When inspectors returned on Nov. 3, the fire had just started at the facility.

Now that the cabinet has fined the company, it’s also set in place a plan to clean up the site. Liberty Tire will have to change the way tires are stored at the facility to comply with the state laws, and Division of Waste Management Director Tony Hatton said the cleanup will be handled under Kentucky’s state superfund statute.

Liberty Tire has 90 days from the date of the order to complete a Site Characterization Plan, which will lay out the possibilities of environmental contamination, both on and off-site. Once that’s approved, they implement the plan and submit a report to the Division of Waste Management.

Hatton said the law requires the company to determine how far contamination from the fire spread, and what pollutants were released into the air or water. To figure this out, Liberty Tire will be required to take and analyze its own samples.

“That’s how that’s supposed to work,” he said. “To a degree, it’s self-implementing. There’s a standard operating procedure, you use a lab that’s able to do this, you properly manage the chain of custody of the samples and the results come in and they get quality checked in the lab.

"However, having said that, from time to time we do split our own samples. And we may on this one.”

But in cases like this, it’s sometimes not just as simple as taking samples and checking for pollution. Hatton said waste tires contain pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. But PAHs are also found in asphalt, and can come from burning fossil fuels.

“They have to determine the nature of the extent of contamination. Sometimes that’s difficult to do with these kind of constituents when you’re in an industrialized area,” he said. “It is a challenge; that’s just the way it is.”

Once Liberty Tire has conducted sampling and determined the extent of the contamination, the company will have to submit a Corrective Action Plan to the state. This will involve remediating any lingering issues from the fire, and making sure there’s no ongoing danger to human health or the environment.

Two residents affected by the tire fire have also filed aclass-action lawsuit against Liberty Tire;they’re asking for damages stemming from the 36-hour shelter-in-place.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.