Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A massive, toxic tire fire, and how citizen sensor journalism could have informed a community in crisis.

A fire at a tire disposal plant in the small town of Hoopeston, Ill., polluted the skies for hours. Photo by @JonathonLinares.
At 5:30 am on Wedneday, June 19, a spark generated by static electricity at J&R Used Tire Service started a fire that would black out the sky for miles around the small town of Hoopeston, Ill.

Initial reports from fire crews suggested the fire could burn for days. By the time it was extinguished the next day, more than 100 firefighters from two states had come to snuff the tire fire, about 500 homes had been evacuated, and rail service through the town was shut down.

According to the Champaign-Urbana NPR affiliate WILL, state environmental officials requested that the state's attorney general to issue a court order to stop the business until it's determined how the fire started, how safe the business is, and what kind of environmental impact this fire had on the community.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency seems primarily concerned with the air and water at the moment. A tremendous amount of water was used to extinguish the blaze, and that water has been contaminated with the byproducts of burning tires.

Obviously, there's a great deal of burning material that was sent into the air. IEPA has been monitoring the air in Hoopeston (pop. 5,321), but that data hasn't been made public on any sort of accessible website.

We can, however, make an educated guess as to the condition of that town's air during the fire. When tires are burned in an incomplete combustion, such as an open tire fire, they release 16 known carcinogenic compounds, according to a 1997 EPA-commissioned report (PDF).

"In particular, the presence and magnitude of benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) is of major concern," the report concluded. "BaP is often a highly-scrutinized compound during evaluations of combustion processes, due to its high cancer potency."

Tire fires also give off massive amounts of mutagens, or compounds that not only can cause cancer, but also birth defects, miscarriages, and "an increased incidence of genetic disease in future generations and contribute to somatic cell diseases, including cancer, in the present generation." (Amdur, 1991)

It's not just the presence, but the sheer quantity of mutagens that makes tire fires so dangerous to human health. The amount of mutagens to come out of incomplete tire combustion dwarfs emissions from all other known combustible compounds. The report quotes a 1992 paper by Lemieux and DeMarini:

"The mutagenic emission factor for open tire burning is the greatest of any other combustion emission studied previously. For example, it is 3-4 orders of magnitude greater than the mutagenic emission factors for the combustion of oil, coal, or wood in utility boilers."

A prototype of the DustDuino, an Arduino-based Wifi sensor node for airborne particulates.
Any air and water data could have helped the community stay informed as the fire happened. But we don't live in a world where we have ubiquitous sensors, especially not in a rural community with a population little over 5,000.

It doesn't have to be that way. Safecast has proven that the DIY movement can respond to catastrophe by developing solutions on the fly, even to massive events such as the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. That also was an event where there was little government data to go on.

Here on this website, I'm documenting the development of a low-cost air quality sensor called the DustDuino. Some preliminary testing shows it to be fairly responsive to changes in the number of airborne particulates (namely PM 10, or particulates measuring greater than 10 micrometers in diameter). Most of the hardware and code has been ironed out at this point, and now a fully-wireless version of this sensor node is being tested that could operate outdoors on solar power alone.

The hope is that as the availability of this low-cost tech increases, more solutions like the DustDuino will be distributed with the help of the community. These nodes could retrieve very helpful information at a time when government cutbacks mean fewer operational air-quality meters.

I frequently write about drones and unmanned vehicles on this website, so it would only be fitting to end with video of a remote-controlled tracked vehicle that was brought out to fight the Hoopeston tire fire: