- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

ABINGDON, Va. The dirt-and-gravel lane begins at the edge of a two-lane county road. It fords a creek, meanders past houses and outbuildings, then climbs along the spine of a ridge. It passes through a pasture, then trees press in on the rutted path.

Over a fence and across a field from the end of that trail in Washington County is one of the largest illegal tire piles 750,000 tires in Virginia.

"I think our folks think it's more than that," said Dallas Sizemore, assistant deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) Abingdon office. "Maybe as much as 850,000 or possibly even more."

An even bigger tire pile in Charles City County, Va., is estimated to have 1 million tires.

Last month, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee formed a task force of local, state and federal officials to deal with this situation and with Roanoke County's at-least five illegal tire dumps.

"I think everybody is on the same page," Mr. Brownlee said. "We need to be more aggressive in getting this stuff cleaned up This is an area where I think government can do some good."

The fire on W.J. Keeling's property, a blaze that consumed more than 1,000 acres and nearly 4 million tires in south Roanoke County, spurred interest in the problem of waste tires across the commonwealth by illustrating the greatest danger that piles of tires pose to people and the environment.

"If you leave a bunch of tires sitting around long enough," Mr. Brownlee said, "they're going to catch on fire."

The tires began piling up on the Washington County cattle farm about 30 years ago. County officials said the purported plan was to collect tires on the farm, then haul them to an out-of-state recycler. The first part of that plan evidently worked perfectly. The second phase apparently broke down.

"It looks like at some time it was a permitted facility," said Stephen Richardson, Washington County's recycling and special projects manager.

Arthur Slaughter, the owner of the property, is 95, unable to speak and lives in a nursing home, according to his son, Frank. Frank Slaughter said the old permit is still good.

According to Mr. Richardson, Arthur Slaughter and a partner asked the county Board of Supervisors to approve a landfill on the property sometime in the 1970s. The supervisors rejected that plan. Then Mr. Slaughter asked the board for permission to set up a tire-storage facility. The supervisors and the state Department of Waste Management, a precursor to the DEQ, approved it.

"I don't think anybody at the county ever gave it another thought," Mr. Richardson said.

Then the tires began piling up.

Tires are spread across the old cow pasture and under bushes. Car tires. Truck tires. Tractor tires.

From the lip of a bowl-shaped ravine, the big pile stretches down 50 yards. It runs 100 yards around the bowl. Trees have grown up through tire carcasses. Vines have grown over them. The same lichen that covers the trees grows on the sidewalls of some of the tires.

The operation was supposed to be reviewed and the permit reissued, Mr. Richardson said. But that didn't happen. "Somewhere between the '70s and '93, somebody dropped the ball, clearly," he said.

It seems the flow of tires to the site stopped for nearly a decade, he said. Then it started again.

"It looks like they dumped pretty heavily in the early '90s," Mr. Richardson said.

Keeping more than 500 tires without a permit is a felony.

According to Mr. Sizemore, the county commonwealth's attorney began preparing a case against Mr. Slaughter a couple of years ago but then left office. The DEQ decided to take care of the problem on its own. Mr. Sizemore said the Abingdon office is building a file, but the news apparently hadn't made it to Mr. Richardson's office.

"I've heard no talk at all about cleaning it up," he said.

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