After plant fire, N.C. fire marshal wants a new task force to examine safety code

“Certainly, the fertilizer plant fire is a wake-up call,” Mike Causey said after fire that led thousands to evacuate


Avi Bajpai
The Charlotte Observer

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said a task force should be convened in light of last month’s fertilizer plant fire in Winston-Salem to consider whether the current state building code is lacking when it comes to fire safety requirements for facilities storing potentially explosive materials.

Causey, who also serves as the state fire marshal, told The News & Observer that if a task force is set up, it should hear from experts on ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer that can explode if it comes into contact with wood, paper or other materials. Close to 600 tons of ammonium nitrate were being held at the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant when the blaze began on the evening of Jan. 31.

The risk of the fire causing a disastrous explosion prompted firefighters to pull back a few hours after they arrived at the scene, evacuating thousands of people who lived and worked within a one-mile radius.

“Certainly, the fertilizer plant fire is a wake-up call to regulators that regulate the hazardous materials, our emergency management folks, and all state leaders, to ask ourselves: are we doing this in the best way, the safest way to protect the citizens?” Causey said in an interview last month.

More than a month later, the Winston-Salem Fire Department’s investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing. Soon after the blaze began, city fire officials reported that the plant didn’t have any sprinklers or alarms, and under the applicable building code, wasn’t required to have them, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Causey told The N&O he believes it’s too early to definitively say whether the plant and others like it should be required to have sprinklers and alarms, but it isn’t too early to start studying whether current regulations are sufficient.

“It’s sort of on the front page right now, everybody’s thinking about it, so it might be a good time for somebody to take the initiative to say, ‘alright, let’s see what we can do to make improvement,’” he said.

Why some plants aren’t required to have sprinklers

Firefighters arrived at the Winston Weaver plant on the evening of Jan. 31 and began to pour giant quantities of water on the blaze. When a company representative gave officials an estimate of how much ammonium nitrate was on hand, the fire department quickly decided to pause the firefighting effort and set up a 1-mile evacuation zone, Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said.

By that point, firefighters had dumped more than 500,000 gallons of water, “and the fire was not getting any better,” Mayo said in an email.

“The fact of the matter is that at the beginning of this incident, there was enough ammonium nitrate on hand for this to be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history,” Mayo said during a Feb. 2 news conference, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.

Located about a mile and a half from Wake Forest University and surrounded by several businesses, the plant is comprised of multiple buildings.

The main building that was storing the ammonium nitrate was constructed in 1939, and under North Carolina law, was required to comply with the building code in effect at the time of construction, or the most recent major modification, Rick McIntyre, a fire investigator with the Winston-Salem Fire Department, said during a public Q&A session last month.

Sprinklers weren’t required until the code was amended in 1953, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Even then, buildings storing combustible goods were only required to have sprinklers if they were two stories or taller, according to N.C. Insurance Department spokesperson Barry Smith.

“Typically, sprinklers would not have been required for one-story buildings unless the building area was larger than the building code limitations,” Smith said in an email.

Today’s building codes have “a lot more detail in requirements in regards to chemical processes and chemical storage,” McIntyre said. But that still leaves facilities like the Winston Weaver plant, which don’t have to comply with the most recent requirements on account of when they were built and last renovated.

And while there are some federal regulations of ammonium nitrate storage, they wouldn’t have applied in this case. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sets rules to ensure safe working conditions, doesn’t require facilities to be equipped with an automatic sprinkler system unless they are storing more than 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate.

Federal regulations proposed but not enacted

In 2013, an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, killed 15 people — including 12 firefighters — and injured more than 260 others.

Up to 160 tons of ammonium nitrate were onsite at the time of the explosion, but only 30 tons of the compound actually detonated, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which issued its final report on the explosion in 2016.

“I think you guys were very lucky,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, who chaired the Chemical Safety Board from 2010 to 2015 — and led the agency’s investigation into the Texas incident — referring to the fact that the Winston Weaver fire burned without an explosion.

Like the Winston Weaver plant, the WFC facility in Texas didn’t have an automatic sprinkler system, according to investigators. If sprinklers had been installed, the Chemical Safety Board said in its report, they could’ve extinguished the fire in its early stages, before it could heat the ammonium nitrate to the point of detonation.

After the explosion in Texas, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that OSHA, among other things, require all facilities across the country storing fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate indoors to have automatic sprinkler and fire detection systems. It also recommended that ammonium nitrate be added to a list of substances regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As of last year, neither of those recommendations had been adopted, according to a recent paper authored by Moure-Eraso on the lack of progress in federal regulation of ammonium nitrate since the Texas explosion.

Moure-Eraso said the lack of regulatory action following the Texas explosion can be attributed to the “incredibly onerous” federal rule-making process, as well as persistent industry lobbying.

“You need to have the regulation, and you need to enforce it,” Moure-Eraso said. “For the chemical industry, they have been very successful to prevent, as a matter of course, any regulation that is proposed.”

Will anything be done at the state level?

Lawmakers who represent Forsyth County in the General Assembly have said they believe any potential changes to the building code should only be made after the fire department’s investigation is completed.

Four GOP lawmakers — state Sen. Joyce Krawiec and Reps. Donny Lambeth, Lee Zachary and Jeff Zenger — told the Winston-Salem Journal in a statement last month that while the investigation is ongoing, “it is too early to make any decisions about changing state laws or regulations.”

State Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat who represents Winston-Salem and other parts of Forsyth County, appeared to be on the same page, telling the N&O that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the fire, particularly about what caused it, and that it was important that investigators determine what happened before lawmakers consider any possible regulatory changes.

“Buildings that are a certain height have to have sprinkler systems,” Lowe said in an interview last month. “But we don’t know yet if the sprinkler system would have prevented this even, because we don’t really know how it started.”

Asked if he believed that sprinklers would have had a meaningful impact in putting out the fire when it began, Mayo, the Winston-Salem fire chief, said: “History has shown that a properly designed, installed, maintained, and operating fire sprinkler system is essentially 100% effective in controlling fires in their incipient stage.”

At the same time, Mayo said, there are “relatively few” facilities that store ammonium nitrate in North Carolina. The Winston Weaver fire was a “low frequency, high consequence event,” as compared to house fires, which he said are “medium consequence, high-frequency events.”

“Retrofitting the hundreds of thousands of residential occupancies in the State with fire sprinklers, rather than the handful of occupancies that store (ammonium nitrate), would save many more lives,” Mayo said.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at https://campsite.bio/underthedome or wherever you get your podcasts.

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