THOMSON -- Residents were warned Thursday to avoid toxic smoke from a worsening underground fire at a defunct industrial landfill while experts from as far away as New Jersey were brought in to help control the blaze.
"The underground fire is much more widespread than we thought it was," said Jennifer Kaduck, chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Hazardous Waste Branch.
The Williams-Mesena Road Landfill -- abandoned by its owners in 1991 after being shut down by EPD for environmental violations -- caught fire Sept. 9.
Georgia Forestry Commission firefighters extinguished the burning brush and cut a fire break to keep the blaze from spreading to adjacent lands.
"But unfortunately, the fire has gotten to the waste itself and is spreading underground," Ms. Kaduck said. "It keeps popping up."
A Georgia State Patrol helicopter took infrared photos to pinpoint underground areas that are burning.
"It appears to us, based on the infrared photography, that the fire is spreading along the trenches where the waste was disposed of underground," she said.
The 120-acre site contains hazardous waste, formaldehyde, synthetic rubber products and drums of waste chemicals. Much of its contents are unknown.
"It operated from the 1940s until 1991, and took all kinds of industrial and a bunch of hazardous waste, too," she said. "There are hazardous chemicals in that landfill that are of concern to us."
Air toxics specialists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Emergency Response Center in Edison, N.J., are assisting EPD with the problem, which Ms. Kaduck said is the first of its kind in Georgia.
State contractors were at the scene Thursday trying to put out the fire.
"We don't know how long it will take," she said. "But we're probably talking weeks."
According to EPD, the site's owner is a corporation called Jerry D. Williams Inc., with the landfill's former operator, Mark Gates, as the sole shareholder. Mr. Gates, according to EPD, abandoned the site and disappeared.
In the meantime, EPD is working with the companies that dumped at the site and others with ties to the landfill to finance the cleanup.
On Thursday, EPD issued an administrative order requiring 10 "responsible parties" to pay for the firefighting work, which is already costing taxpayers as much as $20,000 per day.
Named as responsible parties are four businessmen -- Boone A. Knox, J. Douglas Pentecost, William B. Swan and Jerry D. Williams.
Companies named in the order are Uniroyal Inc., Georgia Iron Works, Johnson Controls, Hoover Treated Wood Products, Lehr Automotive Systems and Temple Inland Forest Products.
Ms. Kaduck said the 10 parties are former owners, operators or companies that have dumped waste at the site.
The group had already been working with EPD and a Savannah environmental lawyer -- Robert Mullins -- to organize an evaluation and possible cleanup at the site. Now the group is helping pay to put out the fire.
"The people responsible for this are banding together to belly up to the bar and put this mess out," she said.
Contractors hired by the parties were working at the site late Thursday.
Air-quality technicians, meanwhile, continued to monitor the toxic smoke from the fire Thursday, but had not issued any evacuation orders for nearby residents.
"We have advised neighbors that if smoke wafts their way, they need to keep their windows closed," Ms. Kaduck said. "If they smell it inside the house they need to leave."
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