THOMASBORO — Former Mayor Tony Grilo said he believes it's not a matter of "if," but "when" a fire breaks out at a tire-recycling plant in Thomasboro.
"It's going to happen in Thomasboro. It's just a matter of time," Grilo predicted. "It's been a fear of the (village) board from the beginning."
Astro Tire Removal, 905 Church St., has operated in Thomasboro since 2009. Owner Elias Papametro has also operated a vehicle repair business there for "more than 15 years," he said.
Papametro said his business is a safe one.
"I'm careful what I do," he said.
Papametro said Astro Tire shreds tires and sells the product to Archer Daniels Midland, which uses it for fuel.
Grilo and others in Thomasboro took special notice of the fire that devastated J&R Used Tire Service Inc. in Hoopeston two weeks ago.
Twenty area fire departments were called in to help quell the mammoth blaze, the smoke from which could be seen for miles.
Grilo said he hopes some good will come out of the Hoopeston fire.
"Hopefully, it will cause some changes on our side so we don't have to go through" what Hoopeston did, Grilo said. "It's been one of our major concerns of us from the beginning."
He said he has spoken with Papametro about the board's concerns in the past about the piles of tires being higher than the fence at the business, and Papametro has made some effort to eliminate the stockpile. On at least one occasion, Grilo said, the problem was caused by the business' grinder being broken. When that was fixed, the inventory began to shrink.
"I know he's upgraded his equipment," Grilo said.
The state cited the Thomasboro company last September. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said a multicount complaint had been filed against the company, noting that Illinois Environmental Protection agency inspectors over the years had found tires stacked in piles and scattered, uncovered, about the grounds in violation of state environmental standards. Some of the waste tires were covered by overgrown vegetation, according to the IEPA.
"Essentially, this business is an open dump in violation of Illinois law," Madigan said.
Madigan spokesman Scott Mulford said the case was referred to the attorney general's office from the IEPA.
Learning from Hoopeston
Cundiff, the Thomasboro fire officers and Mayor Brad Morris met last week to discuss the tire plant.
"We're revamping our response plan and evaluating the impact on the community based on the wind and the runoff," Cundiff said.
The firefighters will do a walk-through of the plant this coming Tuesday, "not as an inspection," Cundiff said, "but to know what we're dealing with."
Cundiff said he'll hold a separate meeting with Thomasboro Police Chief Keith Willis, who was unable to attend last week's meeting.
The fire chief also said he would like to expand the number of local fire departments in the village's mutual-aid agreement from four to eight, bringing in departments as far north as Paxton and as far south as Champaign-Urbana for water.
"We would deplete our water system pretty quick on something like that," Cundiff said.
Cundiff, who is employed full time by Arrow Ambulance, saw firsthand what a tire plant fire is like. He was at Hoopeston during the fire to supervise for the ambulance company. He said he also wanted to see how emergency personnel dealt with the fire.
"I talked with the EPA and the (Hoopeston) fire chief, and we're going to incorporate that into our plan," Cundiff said.
Among the things Cundiff learned was "how they were dealing with it in terms of how much water they would need. They got very aggressive about the amount of water.
"They were less concerned about runoff. EPA came in and had a filter device to filter the by-product of the fire out of the fire system."
Still, contaminated runoff from the fire site got into a tributary of the North Fork branch of the Vermilion River and killed more than 2,000 fish. First responders and city workers built a dam the first day of the fire to hold back the contaminated runoff in a retention pond south of Hoopeston.
The Hoopeston facility, which encompassed nearly 400,000 square feet, is far larger than the Thomasboro plant, which might be a quarter the size of the Hoopeston plant.
The Hoopeston fire, which began during the early morning hours of June 19, is believed to have been caused by static electricity from maintenance being done on a processing machine igniting dust and tire-processing fluff. The IEPA said the Hoopeston plant had more than 50,000 tires on site, plus several large piles of shredded tires and tire pieces such as sidewalls and treads.
Hundreds of Hoopeston residents had to be evacuated from their homes and traffic rerouted from Illinois 9.
Thomasboro plant smaller
Cundiff said he plans to speak more with the Hoopeston fire chief about handling such a blaze.
"Thomasboro is about a fourth of the size of Hoopeston," Cundiff said. "They impacted 1,800 residents for evacuation. Our town is 1,200 or 1,300 people. If the wind is right, the majority of our community would have to be evacuated. That was pretty tremendous smoke.
"It was pretty impressive. I could see the smoke from Gifford. When you got into the community, just the sheer volume of smoke and the area that was burning (was eye-opening). (The fire) spread so fast and was so overwhelming."
Cundiff said Thomasboro is fortunate that the buildings at the Astro plant are more separated than at the Hoopeston site.
"I would like to think we could contain it," he said, adding that Thomasboro officers will meet and will have training in the weeks to come.
Current Thomasboro Mayor Brad Morris said he spoke with Police Chief Keith Willis and said the village needs to have some sort of action plan in the event of a fire at the plant.
"We have an excellent fire department here in town," Morris said.
He estimated that at least three-fourths of the community might have to be evacuated if such a fire breaks out.
"That's why we need to sit down and talk about a plan, protocols and procedures in place," Morris said.
"I don't want to see that happen here. I don't want to shut down businesses or run business out of Thomasboro. Safety is our paramount concern."
Willis said his police department will also develop an emergency plan in the event of fire at the plant.
"More than likely ... we're going to have to shut down traffic," Willis said. "It depends on how the wind's blowing as far as Route 45. We'll also have to worry about the railroad. So, we'll have to work hand in hand with the Canadian National Railroad police."
Willis said the department plan will also take into consideration the need to evacuate the town.
"Again it depends on how big the fire is and which direction the wind is blowing," Willis said.
The police chief said there has never been emergency incident at the tire plant but noted "tires (catch) on fire fast and burn slow. It's a petroleum product, a lot of smoke, lot of soot."
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to a request for an interview.