Oil from a huge toxic tire fire in southern Ontario has seeped into the ground water, sparking fears that it may soon contaminate drinking water used by thousands of people. The fire near Hagersville has been raging for 11 days, spewing thick black smoke and leaking oil from melting tires into a nearby creek.
An all-out assault on the blaze by water bombers, bulldozers, excavators and a team of 30 forest firefighters slowed Thursday because of bad weather.
Firefighters are racing against the clock to stop all the 14-million tires from melting and releasing as much as 14-million gallons of oil.
Dave Bruer, spokesman for Toronto's Pollution Probe Foundation, said: "As an oil spill it is extremely serious. It compares in terms of volume of oil to a major spill on the coast or in the Great Lakes system. If it occurred there you would have a lot more people screaming and shouting about it."
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment has trapped about 90,000 gallons of runoff oil using a system of dams and dikes, but ground water directly below is covered with a thin slick of oil.
"The oil is sitting on top of the water table, which is only about 2 or 3 meters (6 or 10 feet) below the ground," ministry spokesman John Steele said. "We don't know how big an area it's covering because we can't get close enough to the fire."
He said tests have shown the water table used for drinking, which is about 65 feet below the surface, is not yet contaminated.
Bruer said if the oil does sink through, it would be a disaster for thousands of nearby residents.
"It will take a very small amount of oil to contaminate a large amount of drinking water," he said.
Trace amounts of benzene, toluene and toxic dioxins have been found in the smoke from the fire but are not yet at levels to cause alarm, officials said.
About 1,700 people have been advised to leave their homes this week as a precaution, the environment ministry said.
Police suspect arson is the cause of the blaze.