WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) – An environmental watchdog group is suggesting that the level of hazardous material sent airborne by the fire at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant earlier this year was far more dangerous than the public had been told.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a nonprofit organization based in Roanoke, Va., in a report released Wednesday said its evaluation of data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows officials understated the threat to health caused by particles sent into the air by the blaze.

Winston-Salem residents have concerns over air quality after fertilizer plant fire
Winston-Salem residents have concerns over air quality after fertilizer plant fire

The fire at the plant at 4440 North Cherry Street erupted on the evening of Jan. 31, causing some 6,500 residents to be evacuated from a 1-mile perimeter for nearly a week because of threats of explosion from ammonium nitrate stored at the facility.

There were no deaths or injuries related to the fire, but there were environmental threats in the water for several days. A class action suit has been filed on behalf of residents.

The EPA and NC Department of Environmental Quality both have studied the toxicity in the air caused by the billowing smoke, but BREDEL says it hasn’t received information from the state about its findings.

The organization’s 85-page report, authored by Mark Barker, suggests that EPA data show that pollutants that officials described as “irritants” actually were rated by the EPA to be “hazardous and very unhealthy.”

The report says that EPA didn’t set up its air monitors around the fire’s perimeter until 29 hours after the fire erupted, on Feb. 2, and by then readings for a pollutant known as Particulate Matter 2.5 “were already well into the hazardous category.”

The report said that during a press conference the next morning, officials said that “all levels have been in the acceptable range,” but the EPA’s data show that levels of PM 2.5 ranged nearly 20 times higher than the hazardous level.

“PM 2.5 concentrations were as high as 9200 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) at the temporary air monitor located at the Wake Forest University police station,” BREDL’s report states. “EPA community action hazardous conditions start at a concentration of 500 ug/m3.”

Minor Barnette, director of the Forsyth County Environmental Assistance and Protection Office, told WGHP on Wednesday that the report proves that it’s easy to analyze a situation with the help of hindsight and that he is confident that all the many workers on the scene during the fire were doing their best to share information that was accurate.

“Overall I didn’t see anyone who was withholding information or downplaying information,” Barnette said.

William “Trey” Mayo

He said state and local agencies don’t have the equipment required to handle this type of air monitoring, and he assigned the lags in data reporting to the time it took EPA officials to arrive from Charlotte and out-of-state locations, to get their equipment in the best available locations and then even to deal with the wind, which sometimes didn’t move the smoke plumes in the direction where the fixed-place monitors were running 24 hours a day.

WGHP also reached out to Winston-Salem Fire Chief William “Trey” Mayo, who was the public face of fighting the fire, and to a spokesperson for NC DEQ, but neither responded immediately to emails seeking reaction to the report.

Dangerous particles

Aerial view of fertilizer plant fire
Aerial view of fertilizer plant fire

The World Health Organization says that PM includes sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. These particles “can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.”

Those can “penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer” and even death.

Barnette had told residents during the fire that the wind was taking away particles that could be hazardous, but then in March, he had questioned the dangers to residents caused by the fire.

‘Exceptional event’

Fertilizer plant fire continues to rage 12 hours on; neighbors asked to evacuate due to risk of explosion
Weaver Fertilizer Plant fire continues to rage 12 hours after it broke out. on, forcing residents to evacuate because of a risk of explosion. (WGHP)

On Wednesday Barnette called the fire a “major, exceptional event that was happening in real-time. … [But] “we were not getting data in real-time.” He said it was the third or fourth day of the event before the information started to be more immediate.

The evacuation area was based on the threat of an explosion. “We told people, if the air smelled funny, to stay indoors. If indoors the air smelled funny or irritated or burned nostrils, go somewhere else,” Barnette said.

He said that, when the threat of an explosion ended and firefighters could address the fire, the quality of the air improved quickly.

“It was a big relief when we could deal with fire suppression,” he said.

BREDL’s suggestions

BREDL describes itself as a “regional, community-based, non-profit environmental organization. Our founding principles are earth stewardship, environmental democracy, social justice, and community empowerment.”

Barker’s report suggests that officials need to “be transparent in reporting air quality and associated health impacts.

He also said that officials need to employ “EJScreen to identify vulnerable communities, and incorporate temporary air monitors into existing EPA current air quality maps.”