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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — The continuing blaze and threat of explosion at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem raise significant questions about how such a danger could emerge when there are specific federal, state and local regulations adopted to protect against industrial threats to life and the environment – and what could be done to prevent a recurrence in the future.

But Weaver has been a fixture in Winston-Salem since 1940, with construction of its building dating back to the late 1930s, and the fire code of that time establishes how safely Weaver’s facility was constructed and the requirements for how it should be maintained through the generations since.

“Construction and design provisions of the [state fire] code applies to new construction and buildings that are being renovated,” said Charlie Johnson, the chief fire code consultant for the NC Department of Insurance. “As for existing buildings, they are required to comply with the code in effect when they were originally constructed.”

Drone footage shows ongoing battle with fertilizer plant fire
A drone view of the burning plant earlier this week. (Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office)

Automatic sprinkler systems were available when Weaver’s facility was built. They were invented in the 1870s by Philip Pratt, but they didn’t become mandatory in buildings until 1974, when a tragedy in Brazil inspired the state of California to require them.

The National Fire Protection Association said in a report that damages from fires can cost on average $53,000 in restaurants without sprinkler systems but only $13,000 when they were in place. We have no idea how many millions of dollars the damage from the fire at Weaver likely will reach.

Storage issues

But that discussion is about what could have happened after a fire breaks out. Storing the ammonium nitrate that can fuel an explosion – and has done so at facilities around the world – multiplies the threat. State regulation requires specific equipment to be in place to guard against that danger for newly constructed or remodeled building.

What that equipment is depends on several factors, Johnson said, including the size of the building and the amount of hazardous material to be stored.

“In general, the code allows a certain amount of flammable/combustible materials and if that amount is exceeded, the building could be classified as hazardous and require a sprinkler system or other fire protection,” Johnson said.

He said the state groups hazardous materials from a code standpoint as “either health or physical hazards and then classified based on the product.

“Ammonium nitrate would not be classified as ‘combustible,’ but would be classified as an oxidizer and unstable reactive and both classes would be considered physical hazards,” Johnson said.

He explained there also could be subclasses for each hazardous element that varies greatly based on a product’s classification.

“As an example, ammonium nitrate 34-0-0 grade fertilizer would be an oxidizer class 3 and unstable reactive class 3 detonable,” he said. “The 28-14-0 grade would be an oxidizer class 2 and unstable reactive class 2.”

Drones key in making decisions as Winston-Salem fertilizer plants fire continues to burn
Drones key in making decisions as Winston-Salem fertilizer plants fire continues to burn

Large amounts of ammonium nitrate

Fire officials have said about 600 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored at or near the facility, and what’s allowable for those amounts also is based on the original fire code for when the building weas constructed.

“As you might expect, today’s code is written much differently than the code in effect in 1953,” Johnson said. “Under the current code, a building storing 600 tons would be classified as a Group H – Hazardous occupancy and would need to comply with all applicable codes for that classification, which would include sprinklers.

“There are also limits established in the code that determines when storage must be in a detached building. As an example, a Class 3 oxidizer in excess of 1,200 tons would require that storage to be in a detached building.”

Is change needed?

Fertilizer plant fire continues to rage 12 hours on; neighbors asked to evacuate due to risk of explosion
Fertilizer plant fire blazes in Winston-Salem. (WGHP)

Johnson said he would prefer not to comment about how the situation at Weaver might have emerged or how it might be prevented.

“There are so many unknowns at this point,” he said.

But he did say that rules governing what can be built near facilities needs to be examined.

“Encroachment around these hazardous facilities is something that needs to be addressed, but those decisions should be handled at the local level based on a risk analysis assessment,” Johnson said.  

What can be done and when?

Is there a path to address issues that have emerged in this fire and to prevent a future “grandfathered” facility from so easily becoming a safety and environmental hazard?

WGHP reached out to the legislative delegation representing Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in Raleigh with specific questions about how they might respond to this threat.

Rep. Amber Baker (D-Winston-Salem), in whose district the Weaver facility is situated, promised to respond in the next 24 hours, but the Republican delegation for Forsyth County, state Sen. Joyce Krawiec and state Reps. Donny Lambeth, Jeff Zenger and Lee Zachary, issued a joint response to the questions.

“We have been in contact with officials about the fire and continue to monitor it,” the statement said. “At this time, since it is still an active fire and an investigation is ongoing, it is too early to make any decisions about changing state laws or regulations. We are thankful that nobody has been hurt by the fire at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant. We also want to recognize and thank the brave men and women of the Winston-Salem Fire Department and our other first responders that have been working tirelessly to keep our community safe.”

Liz Sharpe, who works on the staff for state Sen. Paul Lowe Jr. (D-Winston-Salem), wrote in an email that “Senator Lowe has concluded that there is not currently enough information known about the situation to answer questions adequately.”

She then delivered this statement from Sen. Lowe:

“Today we are continuing attempts to understand the fire at a fertilizer plant in Northern Winston Salem that has displaced many residents.

“There are many questions that we are asking that remain unanswered, but the situation is being monitored and investigated. There can be no concrete statements or answers to questions concerning the situation until the completion of the investigation and its discoveries arc made known. We must prioritize the information that comes from the investigation.

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“Until the investigation is completed, our focus should be on caring for the community members who have been affected by this horrible event. The state is providing resources to local officials to aid those in need at this time better. Volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross are also working hard to ensure the safety and care of affected persons. Physical aid is currently located at 14 Deacon Blvd., at the Education Building behind the Winston Salem Fairgrounds Annex. The local Red Cross chapter is located at 690 Coliseum Drive NW, Winston-Salem, NC 27106, and their phone number is 336-679-7225.

“Again, I hope that all who have been affected are staying safe and that we as a community can work together and stay strong in the face of this event.”

State Rep. Evelyn Terry (D-Forsyth) did not acknowledge or respond to the questions from WGHP.