It’s been more than five days since a major industrial fire started at an old warehouse in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and state officials still have not been able to put together a list of the potentially toxic materials that were stored in the 420,000-square-foot facility.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) declared a state of emergency in Wood County, where public schools have been closed all week due to the poor air quality and health concerns from the fire. Local and state officials are struggling to determine the potential long-term impacts from the fire. “We don’t really know all the specifics about as far as the endangerment to our people,” Justice said at a press conference Tuesday.
Air quality tests are not finding significant pollutants in the air coming from the warehouse, known as the Ames plant, officials said. Residents as far as 30 miles away in Wood County, West Virginia, though, have complained about the smell from the fire. Parkersburg, a town of about 31,000 residents located on the Ohio River, is the county seat of Wood County.
The WVU Medicine Camden Clark Medical Center in Parkersburg has treated 50 to 60 patients in its emergency room for fire-related symptoms since Saturday. Patients complained of respiratory issues, headaches, sore throat, eye irritation, coughing, and shortness of breath, according to news reports.
In Texas, after Hurricane Harvey flooded the southeastern part of the state, the owners of a chemical plant allegedly downplayed the health impacts of explosions at the plant. Officials from plant owner Arkema Inc. held press conferences where they repeatedly denied the chemicals were harmful to the public or first responders. As it turned out, more than a dozen first responders fell ill in the middle of the road and were sent to the hospital.
At Tuesday’s press conference, it was noted that some of the firefighters who responded to the warehouse fire in Parkersburg were not wearing gear to protect them from the potentially harmful smoke.
The Parkersburg warehouse, owned by Intercontinental Export-Import Inc., was being used to store recyclable plastics. Intercontinental Export-Import is a subsidiary of SirNaik, a company founded in 1987 for the purpose of purchasing and selling recycled plastics.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued an order on Thursday requiring Intercontinental Export-Import to “immediately provide a detailed inventory of all materials that were burned” at the Parkersburg warehouse. In the order, the DEP said Intercontinental Export-Import operates large warehouses and recycling facilities in and around Parkersburg that “are known to contain several polymer materials in the form of pellets, flake, strand, beads, plop, dust, granules, and resins.”
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Wednesday that DEP inspectors visited the warehouse earlier this year and found violations that indicated continued problems at the facility that two local volunteer firefighters had warned nearly a decade before could be at risk of a major fire. The DEP employees inspected the warehouse in February, concluding that the facility’s “general housekeeping” was “unsatisfactory,” according to Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward.
Although state and local officials have been unable to identify the products inside the warehouse, a list of products that were potentially inside the plant at the time of the fire were PVC, nylon, titanium dioxide, fibergalass, formaldehyde, teflon, according to the sheriff’s office of Washington County, Ohio, located across the Ohio River from Parkersburg.
The West Virginia governor said he is “enormously” concerned over the potential long-term problems from the fire. He is hoping that experts from the federal Environmental Protection Agency who “may know something that we may miss” will “come and assist us.”
“We have done multiple, multiple, multiple testings of the air and so far, the multiple testings are OK. But there may be some expert that’s out there that knows there’s something that’s not OK,” Justice said.
Earlier this year, Justice joined President Donald Trump at a rally in West Virginia to announce that he was switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Justice has been a strong supporter of Trump since he assumed the presidency.
Under Trump’s proposed 31-percent budget cut for the EPA, the resources to respond to emergencies such as the Parkersburg fire, along with much of the other state-level work performed by the agency, would be eliminated or sharply reduced. EPA staff and scientists at its regional offices across the country regularly respond to emergency calls from city and state officials. Funds to respond to many of those calls, including from West Virginia officials, would no longer be available under Trump’s budget.
West Virginia has a long history of industrial and environmental disasters. In early 2014, up to 300,000 residents in the Charleston, West Virginia, area were without access to potable water for several days after a major chemical spill. State environmental officials estimated as much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to process coal — crude MCHM — spilled into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River.
The state is home to the worst industrial accident in U.S. history when 750 workers drilling the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the early 1930s died from silicosis. Workers were forced to break through 99.4 percent pure silica in Fayette County, West Virginia, as part of a hydroelectric project. The silica the workers inhaled created extensive and fibrous nodules on the lungs. The workers found it harder to breathe and, ultimately, they suffocated to death.
In Parkersburg, fire officials said they are making progress in fighting the fire but are unable to provide an estimate of when the fire will be out. Once the fire is extinguished, fire marshals will be able to investigate the cause of the blaze and state officials will have a better opportunity to determine what materials were housed in the facility.
More than 100 firefighters from 40 fire stations, including stations in Ohio, have been on the scene since Saturday. Specialized Professional Services Inc., a hazardous materials and environmental emergency company, has been helping with the emergency.
With the fire still burning, officials with the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department issued a statement Thursday recommending that residents “avoid contact with the smoke and remain indoors if possible, with windows and doors closed until the smell is no longer detectable.”