- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

ROANOKE (AP) A federal prosecutor criticized Roanoke County officials for failing to clean up an illegal tire dump that caught fire last month, forcing a federal cleanup that will cost more than $1 million.
U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said the many "miscalculations by government" that allowed the dump to remain and ignite prompted him to create a task force to help other municipalities in the area deal with similar environmental hazards.
Mr. Brownlee's comments Tuesday were the first official criticism of the way local authorities handled the state's largest illegal tire dump. In public hearings, county officials expressed frustration at their inability to get rid of the millions of tires before the fire destroyed them, but they never characterized their inaction as failure.
"There are presently many unknowns about that tire fire," Mr. Brownlee said in a written statement announcing the task force. "But there is one thing that I do know. It was completely avoidable."
County Attorney Paul Mahoney said the criticism was unfair. "It's an American tradition to play Monday-morning quarterback. But it's a lot different when you're standing behind the center and you have to take the snap and make a decision. You have to consider all the circumstances at the time."
The blaze at Willie J. Keeling's illegal tire dump led the governor to declare a state of emergency. The massive fire started March 23 and, in the following weeks, consumed an estimated 4 million tires and cast a pall of black smoke over the southern Roanoke Valley. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has committed $1.2 million in Superfund money to the initial cleanup.
Mr. Brownlee said county officials had known for nearly 15 years that the dump was a potential disaster. The owner, Mr. Keeling, was convicted in 1986 of illegally operating a landfill, unlawfully disposing of rubbish and maintaining a public nuisance.
"After criminal convictions, court orders, numerous press briefings and much hand-wringing, the problem the nearly 4 million tires remained on the land. The hazard remained, and the problem went unsolved for 13 years," Mr. Brownlee said.
Mr. Mahoney said circumstances made getting rid of the tires nearly impossible. In the 1980s, he said, the EPA forced the county to clean up a landfill at Dixie Caverns, a project that cost the county $12 million. The county has recovered up to $9 million of that money from companies that dumped at the landfill, but it is still fighting to get the rest. That problem, Mr. Mahoney said, was much more immediate than the tire dump.
The county couldn't obtain state or federal help during the recession in the early 1990s, Mr. Mahoney said, then Mr. Keeling filed for bankruptcy protection. After failing to broker a deal between private cleanup companies and Mr. Keeling, the county obtained a state grant and was beginning to clean up the tire dump when the fire broke out, Mr. Mahoney said.
"People have a right to ask questions and criticize," Mr. Mahoney said, "but what can you do to stop someone from committing arson? Those tires just sitting there weren't an environmental hazard. They only became a hazard when they were on fire."

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