Featured image: Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire (Photo: Screen grab Winston-Salem Fire Dept. drone footage)

This article was originally published by NC Policy Watch on March 10.

Thirty-six hours after a catastrophic fire broke out at the Weaver Fertilizer plant, the air in this Winston-Salem neighborhood was practically unbreathable.

Levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, peaked at more than 30 times the EPA’s eight-hour average.

“I had a panic attack,” Minor Barnette, director of the Forsyth County Office of Environmental Assistance and Protection, said. “I had never seen numbers like that.”

Even average levels of PM 2.5 — invisible particulates that burrow deep into the lungs — were so high that they were categorized as “hazardous” to public health, based on EPA guidelines.

Barnette debriefed the Environmental Management Commission yesterday on the Weaver Fertilizer fire, where 500 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited and burned from Jan. 31 until at least Feb. 6, when the building’s ruins were still smoldering. His account illustrated how close the city came to an unfathomable disaster. That includes a troubling discovery several days after the blaze of an open-air shed containing fertilizer which was leaching into a creek.

At 6:45 on the evening of Jan. 31, the Winston-Salem Fire Department received a call that the plant was on fire. The fertilizer was stored in a wooden building that didn’t have a sprinkler system — a situation that was lawful, based on when the facility was built in 1939.

“It was in a highly developed area,” Barnette said. The city had grown around the plant, with homes, businesses and a prison nearby. The area is largely a community of color and a low-income neighborhood. State environmental regulators have designated it “potentially underserved.”

For two hours firefighters poured 600,000 gallons of water on the blaze. “It had done almost no good,” Barnette said.

Meanwhile, just feet from the plant, a rail car contained another 100 tons of ammonium nitrate.

Because of the risk of explosion, at 9 p.m. 6,500 people within a mile of the plant were asked to evacuate.

Ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer. That means although not inherently flammable, it can ignite and explode when it comes into contact with other hot materials. An ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas, in 2013 killed more than a dozen people and flattened a neighborhood. That disaster involved only 250 tons of the chemical; there was more than twice that amount stored at Weaver.

In addition, there were 4.5 million pounds of 26 other chemicals stored at the plant, according to the facility’s inventory report. “You see these in a chemistry textbook,” Barnette said. “They’re not what you want to see during a hot fire.”

Over the next day, the EPA set up stationary air monitors around the evacuation zone, and added a roving monitor to measure pollutant levels between them. The FAA closed airspace above the plant so government officials could fly drones, some of them equipped with thermal imaging equipment to monitor the fire.

The rail car, it appeared, was cool enough for firefighters to approach it. The ammonium nitrate “wasn’t off gassing, wasn’t molten,” Barnette said, indicating the risk of explosion was low.

Firefighters flooded the rail car with water — 10,000 gallons per minute — to keep the material from igniting.

This warehouse at 3100 Glenn Road is also owned by Meherrin Fertilizer, the parent company of Winston Weaver. Like the main fertilizer plant and another large storage barn, this building is near dense residential neighborhoods. (Photo: Google Street View)

More stashes of fertilizer chemicals found near residential neighborhoods

All that water carried chemicals into nearby Monarcas Creek, which feeds other waterways that eventually flow into the Yadkin River. “Fish were dying in the streams,” Barnette said.

Workers soon built a large earthen berm to contain the runoff. To determine the extent of the water pollution, a contractor for the city tested the creek uphill from the plant in order to get background levels. “They were not normal,” Barnette said of the test results.

While levels of ammonia and phosphorus — used to make fertilizer — were lower those downstream, they shouldn’t have been present at all.

The source of the contamination was Weaver Fertilizer. The company had been legally storing chemicals in an open-sided shed along Brownsboro Road. Rain had carried the contaminants into the creek.

The Brownsboro Road shed, represented by the yellow dot, is just east of an apartment complex, represented by the purple dots. Although a tree line separates the two buildings, it is only 222 feet between them. (Map: Forsyth County GIS)
The open-sided shed at 4020 Brownsboro Road, which stores fertilizer chemicals. It is owned by Meherrin Fertilizer, the parent company of Winston Weaver. (Photo: Google Street Map)

The parcel according to county records, is owned by Meherrin Fertilizer — Weaver’s parent company — based in Severn, in Northampton County. The shed containing the chemicals is 222 feet from the back doors of an apartment complex, according to county GIS maps.

After being cited by the city, the company improved the shed to keep out the rain. However, zoning regulations allow the shed to remain on the property.

Meherinn also owns a 123,000 square-foot warehouse at 3100 Glenn Ave., south of Weaver Fertilizer, in Winston-Salem. The brick building was constructed in 1958. Like the Weaver Fertilizer plant, it does not have a sprinkler system, according to county records.

The warehouse is across the street from a residential neighborhood, which is 73% persons of color and 68% low-income.

Several members of the state’s Environmental Management Commission urged Barnette to track the health of people who live near the main fertilizer plant. They would have been exposed to the air pollution before they evacuated; when they returned home, the indoor air could also still be contaminated.

Fire officials have yet to determine the cause of the blaze. “It was such a destructive fire, it is hard to draw conclusions,” Barnette said.

It is unlikely that the Weaver plant will be rebuilt; if it were, the structure would have to meet current fire and building codes. Most likely, Barnette said, “it will be a vacant piece of property.”

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