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Tire recycling plant up in smoke

July 19, 2005

Plumes of black smoke visible for miles billowed Tuesday from a fire at a tire recycling plant near Watertown that officials said had as many as 1 million tires, five times the number it is allowed.

The massive blaze - something state regulators and concerned neighbors had warned could happen - began at 9:58 a.m. at Watertown Tire Recyclers when a piece of equipment used to move tires around the plant malfunctioned, Watertown Mayor John David said during a news conference near the plant. More than 120 firefighters from 14 departments fought the blaze, a task complicated by having to truck in water from a hydrant 1 1/2 miles away.

"I can't tell you how many millions of gallons of water they're throwing on it," David said. "But it's not doing a heck of a lot of good."

The foul scent of burning tires wafted with the smoke and could be smelled as far away as Jefferson, 18 miles away. The smoke, thick and black at the ground, rose hundreds of feet into the air and could be seen as far away as Beloit and Milwaukee, according to reports. The blaze, which officials said will burn for at least three more days and could continue for up to a week, destroyed the tire plant and an adjacent home, which the plant's owner, Thomas Springer, owns but did not occupy.

Neighbors and government regulators had issued warnings about the size of the operation, which by some estimates was several times larger than the 200,000 tires allowed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Joseph Brusca, the DNR's air and waste regional leader, said the plant had accumulated 500,000 tires by last November. Jennifer Warmke, the deputy director of the Dodge County emergency management agency, said Tuesday that the plant had more than 1 million tires.

Brusca said state officials urged Springer to reduce the stockpile and had taken enforcement action against him - a process that was still under way Tuesday. A state inspector, Barbara Palecek, was inside the plant conducting a follow-up investigation when the fire started.

In May, a group of 10 neighbors filed suit against the company in Dodge County, asking a judge to order the recycling business to comply with its state permit. The suit warned that the massive tire inventory was "creating hazards and increasing the potential for a fire."

Springer's attorney, Vicki Zick, acknowledged that the company had exceeded the limits of its state permit but said the operation has been under industry pressure to accept used tires. Springer couldn't be reached Tuesday.

"This is not just a bad citizen not minding the store," Zick said. "This is a company providing a necessary service."

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