EPA helps extinguish 5-year-old fire at Puerto Rico tire facility

A fire that burned for more than five years at a tire disposal site in southern Puerto Rico has finally been extinguished, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday.

EPA officials said Puerto Rico's government called them several weeks ago seeking help to extinguish the fire at the Integrated Waste Management site in the southern coastal city of Penuelas.

The pile of tires was 60 feet (18 meters) high, 150 feet (46 meters) long and 60 feet (18 meters) wide. It first caught fire in August 2008 and kept smoldering even though local officials had partially controlled the burn with dirt, the EPA said.

"Certain types of industrial fires can smolder for a long time," EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said in a phone interview. "It was something that was persistent."

The EPA said it began work on March 18 and extinguished the fire on April 24. Officials said they took more than 12,000 tires to a recycling center and covered 8,000 cubic yards (6,100 cubic meters) of non-hazardous material with clean soil.

EPA officials said their part of the cleanup cost some $400,000, and that they are looking for the facility's owners to hold them responsible for the expense.

Jose Manuel Diaz, a 44-year-old activist who lives less than a kilometer (mile) from the facility, celebrated the announcement.

"We were affected by bad smells," he said. "Other neighbors lived with their windows constantly closed. The soot literally fell on windows, inside homes."

Laura Velez, president of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, said the agency had issued several orders against the company in recent years but received no response. She said in a phone interview that the government is still calculating its cleanup costs.

Government officials also installed air quality monitors at two communities located near the site, but Velez said no evacuations were needed despite occasional spikes in soot and particulate matter.

"Now those communities can rest in peace," she said. "We're satisfied that we've solved the problem."