New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Welding near pile of tires started massive Minto tire fire, records show

The fire marshal’s investigation report, which was obtained by CBC News through access to information, points to the embers blown out from a light fixture as the only possible cause of the Minto tire fire.

Contamination found in groundwater, but seems to be flowing away from residential wells, government says

A massive 2019 tire fire in Minto started after workers were welding near a pile of tires and shredded material, records obtained by CBC News show. (Harvey Fire Department)

It took nearly 20 minutes for a worker to notice smoke coming from a light fixture outside the Tire Recycling Atlantic Canada Corp. building in Minto.

Around suppertime on Dec. 20, 2019, workers were welding on a piece of equipment outside the TRACC building, close to a pile of tires and shredded material.

A worker "hooked a wand up to the air hose" and blew out the shredded tire dust and fluff that was smouldering inside the light fixture. Live embers landed "all over the place below."

For hours, a hot ember smouldered under the surface of the shredded pile. After workers had left for the night, it finally ignited, growing bigger by the minute.

Workers were welding on a piece of equipment, pictured on the right, close to a pile of tires and shredded material. A live ember smouldered under the rubber until finally igniting hours after it landed. (Office of the Fire Marshal)

A neighbour returning home from a Christmas party noticed the fire shortly before 11 p.m. and called 911.

"Seeing the fire on video at this time, it was a very large fire by this time and growing rapidly," chief provincial fire investigator Jeff Cross wrote in the fire marshal's report.

Last year, the Fire Marshal's Office told CBC News the fire was accidental in nature and refused to publicly reveal how the giant blaze started.

Surveillance photos show how a live ember smouldered under the surface, before igniting and growing quickly. It soon spread to the building and tire storage area, according to an investigation by the fire marshal. (Office of the Fire Marshal)

But the fire marshal's investigation report, which was obtained by CBC News through access to information, points to the embers blown out from the light fixture as the only possible cause.

"There was no wetting down of the pile following the actions to extinguish the material around the light fixture, therefore leaving a hot ember to smolder and eventually ignite, assisted by the occasional wind gust," the report says.

TRACC declined an interview request, citing negotiations with its insurance companies.

A senior adviser with the company didn't answer specific questions about the cause of the fire, including why welding was allowed to happen so close to flammable material.

"Like all industrial operations, we learn from experience — our own as well as other industrial operations," TRACC senior adviser Dave Besner wrote in an email.

"We have made significant changes to our operations in the last year. Most notably, all tires are now stored in secured trailers and are processed each day."

Fire still smouldering below soils

CBC News reviewed more than 1,000 pages of records about the Minto tire fire from the Office of the Fire Marshal and the Department of Environment and Local Government.

In addition to detailing how the fire started, they reveal how the province's fire marshal was concerned the Department of Environment wasn't moving fast enough to deal with what he described as "a major environmental event."

How the massive 2019 Minto tire fire began.

2 years ago
Duration 3:38
New records shed light on cause of massive 2019 tire fire in Minto.

More than one year after the fire burned for days and left a layer of thick smoke hanging over the small village of Minto, the department now says contaminants related to the tire fire have been detected in the groundwater, which residents rely on as a potable source of water.

"All indications to date have shown that the groundwater flow from the site is travelling away from the residential wells," department spokesperson Jean Bertin wrote in an emailed statement.

In an email sent two days into the gargantuan job of fire suppression, fire marshal Michael Lewis wrote that the Department of Environment believed its role didn't begin until the fire was out. He disagreed.

"I think they need to act quickly and assume control under a qualified site professional," Lewis wrote to Dan MacLean, an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Justice and Public Safety.

"Decisions made at this juncture by qualified external professionals I believe have the opportunity to make a difference between a $2 million event, or a complex $25 million environmental legacy."

Neither the Fire Marshal's Office nor the Department of Environment and Local Government provided an interview for this story.

In an emailed statement, the department defended its response.

"We took the steps we could while keeping people safe — safety was first and foremost," Bertin wrote.

The TRACC site where the fire once raged is now almost deserted, except for a couple of trailers, strewn tires, and a pile of what appears to be sand. The company has moved its operations to a new, nearby site and torn down its old building.

The old site where the Minto tire fire happened is now mostly empty. Its old building has been torn down, and operations have been moved to a nearby site. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

But underneath the ground, the fire "continues to smolder below soils placed over top of it."

That's according to documents filed in the Fredericton Court of Queen's Bench by TRACC in December 2020.

The company is suing two insurers, Aviva Insurance Company of Canada and Lloyd's Underwriters, alleging they've failed to cover numerous costs related to the fire. Neither company had filed a statement of defence as of Feb. 4.

'A good catch all deflection'

Back in December 2019, the massive fire quickly spread, thanks to the "arrangement and continuity" of the tires, which acted as fuel for the fire.

That challenged fire suppression efforts, according to a statement from the Office of the Fire Marshal.

"The response efforts of the fire departments were exemplary and prevented further damage," spokesperson Coreen Enos wrote in an emailed statement.

Behind the scenes, Lewis referenced the separation between the tires as a problem numerous times while crews tried to get the fire under control.

Ahead of a public meeting in Minto, a provincial fire investigator asked Lewis how he should address questions about the tires.

A public meeting was held in Minto in January 2020 for residents to learn more about the fallout resulting from the tire fire. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"Oh, and if the conversation gets into that question of 'how did they get that many tires there and pass inspections' my best response would likely be that this is still under investigation?" provincial fire inspector Mark Nowlan wrote to Lewis on Jan. 2, 2020.

"What do u think? Always a good catch all deflection especially in these early stages."

Lewis responded that he agreed but didn't think there would be many questions like that at the meeting.

"Between you and I, we know the separations were a problem. But if anyone asks about separations, we can either say it's part of the investigation or defer question to Environment (their duty to inspect the [Certificate of Approval])," Lewis wrote.

At one point, Lewis wrote that TRACC "was not in compliance with several requirements associated with their licence, which have hindered fire suppression activities."

It's not clear what parts of its licence TRACC may not have been complying with. When asked, the provincial government said past audits and inspections "showed that the facility operated in compliance with the conditions of its approval to operate."

Fredericton-Grand Lake MLA Kris Austin has wondered how the fire spread so quickly.

"I've always had issues with the resources the Department of Environment has and the oversight on some of these places to ensure that they're doing what they're supposed to do," Austin said in an interview.

Kris Austin, the Fredericton-Grand Lake MLA and People's Alliance leader, speaks to reporters at the site of the Minto tire fire in December 2019. (Gary Moore/CBC)

"TRACC employs a good amount of people in our community. We've always supported TRACC and we want to continue to support TRACC being there. We do believe that they play a part to the economy of our community. But at the same time, it's important that they do it right and they do it within the regulations."

'A super chemical mixture'

After the fire had been raging for nearly 24 hours, the fire marshal was already concerned about the long-lasting effects of the tire fire.

"There will be a considerable environmental impact from this incident," Lewis wrote in a Dec. 22 email.

"There is considerable water run-off on site, and this water is likely laden with BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylene, xylene), which can impact water quality."

Tires burn hot and when they burn, they have the potential to leach out toxic and carcinogenic elements, according to Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

"Emergency officials, firefighters and departments of environment worldwide know how risky a tire fire is and how important it is to do short-term monitoring and long-term monitoring to make sure that those chemicals that affect people's health aren't going into groundwater or drinking water," Corbett said in an interview.

Tires burn hot and when they burn, they can leach toxic and sometimes carcinogenic chemicals like benzene, according to Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. (Office of the Fire Marshal)

Chemicals that "are cancer-causing," like benzene, cause the most concern, Corbett said.

"In a tire fire, you'll get a super chemical mixture of a number of agents," she said.

"Benzene always comes up to the top of the list. In a tire fire, because it's a sub-product of oil, you'll tend to almost always find it."

TRACC hired environmental consultant

Shortly after the fire began, TRACC hired Wood Environmental to help with environmental monitoring and testing.

The Environment Department says groundwater and potable water sampling, including a number of residential wells, is happening quarterly, while "soil, sediments and surface water sampling are conducted as needed for tire fire related contaminants."

The provincial government says contamination related to the tire fire has been found in the groundwater following the massive Minto tire fire, but the contaminants seem to be flowing away from residential wells. (NB EMO)

It's not clear when the department found the contaminants in the groundwater. But it's good news that they appear to be flowing away from residential wells, Corbett said.

She said a number of factors can influence how "chemicals of concern" move through a water system, including the height of the ground and what type of rock is present.

"It's still important, though, because all water is connected," she said.

"They're migrating towards something. So are they migrating towards a stream? Are they migrating towards a river?"

On Friday, the government provided a list of the contaminants that have been found in the groundwater. 

"The monitoring wells immediately on site have shown petroleum hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metals, dioxins and furans," spokesperson Vicky Lutes wrote in an emailed statement. She also said tests have found the pollutant perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

"However, results from nearby residential and commercial wells satisfy the standards for drinking water."

Water quality testing

While TRACC didn't provide an interview, its statement of claim says contaminants were released into air, water and soil when the fire burned rubber.

"The fire caused and continues to cause damage to neighbouring properties owned by others, as contaminants created by the fire leach into soils or are washed off the property and onto neighbouring properties by precipitation," the statement of claim says.

The provincial government expects to receive an environmental site assessment and remedial action plan from TRACC and Wood Engineering within the next six months, the department says.

The assessment will help the government understand "any long-lasting environmental effects," while the action plan will guide "future clean-up of the site."

The village's drinking water has been on residents' minds "constantly" since the tire fire happened, according to Minto Mayor Erica Barnett.

Minto Mayor Erica Barnett says the quality of drinking water has been on residents' minds since the tire fire happened in December 2019. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

She said she hasn't heard from residents who have concerns recently but is receiving regular updates from the government.

"They've assured me that they are on top of it, that if there's any contaminants found in drinking water, that it immediately goes to the Department of Health, who will issue the alerts and inform its residents," Barnett said in an interview.

'The polluter should pay'

In the meantime, it's not clear who will pay for the fire's aftermath.

Barnett said the village covered the costs of fire cleanup. She didn't have an estimate, but said the cost was "a bit of a strain" on Minto's budget.

The provincial government has spent nearly $1 million on the tire fire, between the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Emergency Measures Organization and the Department of Environment and Local Government, which hired a consultant to provide technical services.

Austin didn't hesitate when asked who he thought should pay.

"The polluter should pay," he said.

"That's been the model that I've understood, is when an issue like this takes place, it's the polluter that pays. And I say that, through their insurance company or whatnot. But I mean, something of that magnitude shouldn't be on the taxpayers' dime to clean up and to put the fire out and all of the reclamation that goes with it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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