SYCAMORE, Ohio—Three former owners of a tire recycling facility may end up liable for as much as $50 million in court-ordered penalties in connection with a massive 1999 tire fire on their property.
The attorney for two of the plaintiffs, however, said they were very minor participants in the activities at the site and shouldn´t be part of the litigation at all.
Judge Kathleen Aubry of the Wyandot County Common Pleas Court handed Doris Kirby, Don Williams and Rebecca Williams a $20 million civil penalty as punishment for the fire on the Kirby´s Tire Recycling Inc. property near Sycamore, about 50 miles south of Toledo.
Aubry also ordered the trio in her Oct. 18 ruling to reimburse the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in full for scrap tire cleanup at the site. That cleanup has been going on for the past six years, and may go on for another five.
In 2000, state officials estimated the final cleanup cost could be as much as $30 million.
While she recognized Kirby and the Williamses have nowhere near that kind of money, Aubry said she wanted to set an example for disposal site owners who might otherwise let their operations grow out of control. The $20 million civil penalty is the highest in Ohio history, according to Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro.
Begun in 1950, the Kirby tire pile eventually totaled 25 million tires on a 110-acre plot, said Robert Large of the Ohio EPA in an April 2005 speech at the World Tire Expo in Louisville, Ky. It was 40 feet high, 200 feet wide and 1,000 feet long, Large said.
The Ohio EPA began cleanup of the site July 1, 1999. But on Aug. 21, 1999, four people allegedly set the pile on fire as a practical joke. That prank resulted in the largest tire fire in Ohio history, destroying an estimated 6 million tires in five days and creating a plume of smoke that drifted as far as Columbus, 60 miles away.
By the end of August 2005, the Ohio EPA and its contractors had cleaned up at least 16 million of the unburned tires at the Kirby site, and expected to remove the remaining 2 million or 3 million by the spring of 2006, an agency spokeswoman said. But the further cleanup of millions of burned and damaged tires that are buried at the site could take until 2010 to complete.
"The judgment clearly sends a message that we just won´t tolerate flouting the environmental laws of this state," she said.
Dean Henry, attorney for the Williamses, said he still was waiting for Aubry to enter her judgment in the case.
Henry said he does not represent Doris Kirby. "In fact, at the final hearing, she was not represented by counsel at all," he said.
The Williamses have not yet decided whether they will appeal Aubry´s decision. "There are a variety at issues influencing that decision, not just the amount of the judgment," he said. "My clients never had an opportunity to try this case in court, because the court granted summary judgment to the State of Ohio."
Henry said he only came on the case in 2004, seven years after the Ohio EPA filed its lawsuit. "Most of the damage had been done by then," he said. "My clients were very minor shareholders in the Kirby operation, with no management function. One worked in the office, and the other drove a truck."