Thousands flee homes near North Carolina fertiliser plant fire with 600 tons of ammonium nitrate on site, US
An uncontrolled fire at a fertiliser plant in North Carolina forced thousands of people to evacuate as fire fighters stood back Tuesday because of the danger of a large explosion. A structure fire started at the Weaver Fertiliser Plant on Monday night, 31 January 2022, located at 4440 North Cherry Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the US. The fire at the fertiliser plant packed with nearly 600 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate continued to burn on Wednesday, forcing roughly 6 500 residents in the immediate area to remain out of their homes for at least another night, officials said. The fire, which started at around 19h00, quickly spread throughout the facility, triggering multiple explosions, sending noxious gas into the air and casting a haze over city of more than 250 000 people.
The city’s fire chief said the fire had been “relatively static” overnight but with 600 tons of combustible ammonium nitrate stored at the site, the risk of an explosion would remain through Wednesday. “I’ve been in this business 33 years and when I learned how much ammonium nitrate was on site last night, I felt as uneasy at a fire scene as I’ve felt in my 33 years in this business,” Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said.
At least 90 fire fighters fought the fire for about 90 minutes after it was discovered at a loading dock around on Monday but the risk of an explosion forced them to retreat, Mayo said. The fire quickly consumed the entire building and it collapsed. An unmanned fire truck was left behind to continue pumping water onto part of the site.
Drones and a helicopter monitored the fire from above and teams of fire fighters were on standby, letting the fire burn for now, the chief said.
Chief Mayo said an estimated 500 tons of ammonium nitrate were housed at the plant and another 100 tons of the fertiliser ingredient were in an adjacent rail car. He said that is more of the chemical than was present at a deadly blast at a 2013 Texas fertiliser plant blast that killed 15 people. “So if that doesn’t convey the gravity of the situation and how serious folks need to take it, I don’t know how else to verbalise that,” he added.
Mayo said the chemical generally needs to be in a confined space to explode, so the risk will depend on whether the material is stacked deep enough for the top layers to put enough pressure on the bottom layers.
Authorities warned of smoke and poor air quality in the city. Matthew Smith, a hazardous material expert with a regional state task force, said the gasses released by the blaze are more of an irritant than something that could cause serious harm, barring an underlying lung condition.
A representative of the Winston Weaver plant issued a statement Tuesday that no workers were injured or killed in the explosion. It thanked fire fighters and first responders.
Evacuations and air quality
Initially, a one-mile voluntary evacuation radius was established by the Winston-Salem Fire Department due to possible explosion hazard. The Fire Department ceased fire fighting operations and pulled back personnel due to concerns of potential explosion of the ammonium nitrate.
During the morning of February 1, the State of NC requested EPA's assistance with air monitoring and surface water sampling. Two Region 4 OSCs along with EPA contractor resources provided ammonia, nitrous oxide and particulate air monitoring support to the incident. EPA resources will coordinate with the Local Incident Commander and provide data to support decision making and protect human health and the environment.
On 2 February 2022, Unified Command conducted a thorough assessment of one rail car containing ammonium nitrate located within the plant. The assessment determined that the rail car was not damaged during the incident and no longer presented an explosion threat.
On 3 February 2022, Unified Command reduced the initial evacuation from an one-mile radius to an eighth of a mile radius. This new evacuation zone does not contain any residences and all previously evacuated residents were allowed to reoccupy their homes.
The EPA continued to conduct air monitoring activities as long as fire suppression operations were impacting communities surrounding the Weaver Fertiliser Plant.
Authorities drove through neighbourhoods and knocked on doors urging residents to leave within a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius of the Winston Weaver Company fertiliser plant on the north side of Winston-Salem, where the fire began Monday night. Overnight, bright orange flames and thick plumes of smoke could be seen shooting into the sky. No injuries were reported.
“We heard the explosion. It shook our house,” said Michelle Shepherd, who evacuated from her home near the plant. “We weren’t sure what it was. I opened up my front door and the entire sky was nothing but orange. I could see the flames shooting over the trees.” Shepherd, the evacuee who felt her house shake, said she used a phone app to listen to emergency scanner traffic and heard fire fighters talking about abandoning their equipment. “That’s when I started thinking we needed to evacuate,” she said, adding that several hours passed as she and her partner debated whether to relocate. “All of sudden, there were three more, almost consistent, explosions and we could feel the house rock again,” Shepherd said. “I said, ’You know what? I’m not even going to take a chance. We need to go.”
A contractor working for the Winston Weaver Co established a toxicology hotline for residents who live in the area affected by the fire at the Winston Weaver Co fertiliser plant.
Site conditions have improved and EPA stopped conducting air monitoring operations as of 6 a.m., February 6. The air monitoring operations have transitioned from the EPA to the Potentially Responsible Party, Winston Weaver Co's environmental contractor under the direction and guidance of State and local environmental agencies.
A month before the fertiliser plant fire in Winston-Salem, fire crews were called to the same plant to deal with a smouldering pile of “fertiliser material,” said an incident report released by the city’s fire department.
Fire officials said last week that the Weaver plant had its annual building inspection 21 December 2021, five days before the small electrical fire.
The plant, which dates to 1939, did not have an alarm or sprinkler system nor was it required to as it was “grandfathered in” under state building codes put in place in 1936, 17 years before sprinkler systems were commonplace.
A report from the 21 December 2021 inspection showed that Weaver had a problem with its electrical system. Weaver “corrected it right away,” deputy fire marshal Angela Sowell said Wednesday.
An inspection report that indicated an electrical problem five days before the small fire raises questions as well, prime among them whether the city had the option to temporarily halt production at the plant. “It will take time for us to do a full investigation but I imagine we will set up a commission to write a full after-action report that will include all the minute details of this incident,” Chief Mayo said.
Sources: Associated Press, ABC News, Journal Now