Gov. Justice pledges aid as local officials grapple with plant fire
Local, state, federal and emergency officials met with the Wood County Commission on Monday morning to discuss the continuing situation at the plastics storage facility on Camden Avenue, which has been on fire since early Saturday morning.
Gov. Jim Justice on Monday declared a State of Emergency in Wood County following the warehouse fire that continues to burn in Parkersburg. A spokesman for Justice said Monday evening that Justice planned to visit Parkersburg this morning, including a possible visit to the 911 Mobile Command Center today.
Since the blaze has not yet been extinguished and poor air quality continues in the area, additional resources may be necessary to address the fire and conducting further pollutant testing, Justice said.
“Multiple state agencies have been involved in assisting Wood County since this terrible fire started on Saturday,” said Justice. “We are committed to making sure this disaster continues to be addressed and therefore I am issuing this declaration so that essential emergency services continue without interruption.”
The declaration will remain in effect for 30 days unless it is terminated or extended by a subsequent proclamation, Justice said.
Over 30 area fire departments responded to the nine-acre site in south Parkersburg and have been continually at work trying to deal with the blaze. A special contractor that deals specifically with industrial fires was brought in.
The commission held a special emergency meeting Sunday to inform local officials the county was running out of money to pay for continued operations and something needed to be done at the state or federal level to keep efforts going.
The county has spent $300,000 on efforts to fight the fire. One of the special contractors, Drew McCarty of Specialized Professional Services Inc. (SPSI) of Washington, Pa., needed a commitment he was going to be paid in order to keep his operation going. His was a small business and could not continue indefinitely without a financial commitment from someone, he said.
At the meeting, Donnie Adkins from the office of Gov. Jim Justice said the governor understands the county does not have the resources necessary to continue as is.
“He feels the state is willing to put all of the resources necessary to deal with this issue and address it,” Adkins said of Justice. “He is very concerned about the health and safety of Wood County residents and those affected.”
The state will need federal guidance on the proper way to handle this, he said, adding the governor was also concerned about the air quality issues.
The governor’s office has reached out to West Virginia’s congressional delegation and its U.S. senators for any federal help they can offer, Adkins said. Officials who have been in contact with those offices said work is being done to get the needed resources available.
“We have reached out to the federal government for guidance and funding to make sure we have the additional resources to address the problem,” he said.
Adkins also talked with McCarty who has water pumps being used to pump river water to fight the fire and has excavators available to go in and tear apart debris so firefighters can get access to the areas still burning.
“We will work with him to give him the proper assurances he will be reimbursed for his work,” Adkins said. “We want to make sure he has everything he needs to mobilize resources.”
McCarty told those assembled they have brought in fire suppressant foam and ways to get the foam to the site.
“So far we have had a limited engagement supporting role to the fire service which has done a fantastic job,” he said. “Your local resources have done a phenomenal job.
“We are here to help. We appreciate everyone confirming there will be funding to cover our small business. We are engaged fully as this team.”
SPSI is bringing in resources and as of Monday morning, it had four excavators, three with hydraulic thumbs and one with a “65-foot long stick” with a fixed thumb which should have been in Parkersburg Monday afternoon. The company is bringing in water pumps which will be placed at the end of Broadway Avenue to pull water from the Little Kanawha River. They are increasing their staffing on site to operate those machines.
The machines have a longer reach and able to reach farther into the site to remove debris and open things up.
“‘By (Monday) afternoon, we’ll will be making some headway,” McCarty said.
SPSI is planning to work from day to dark due to safety concerns. They will also be working with local fire officials on aspects on the scene.
McCarty cautioned the job will take days to complete and will not be finished up immediately even with the new equipment on site.
“The sheer magnitude of the footprint of real estate and the depth of fire load stuff, this is recycled plastics,” he said. “The challenge is (the fire) is underneath the wreckage. The reality is until that wreckage gets cleared away to get access to the fire. We have to work through the wreckage and putting out the fire as you go. It is going to take time.”
Mark Stewart, chief of the Lubeck Volunteer Fire Department and incident commander, said manpower was going to be an issue as many volunteer firefighters would have to return to their normal jobs on Monday. However, they have been able to maintain a good presence on the scene as many volunteers have taken vacation days to remain on the scene as needed.
At a press conference Monday afternoon at the Wood County 911 Center attended by officials from a variety of agencies at the local and state level, Stewart said Monday’s weather caused some problems with the firefighting efforts.
“At one point, the smoke plume had shifted and crossed Camden Avenue, which affected half of our operations. We pulled everybody out, shut down the entire operation and sent everybody to rehab to eat, hydrate and take a break while we met with the contractors,” he said.
Following that meeting, the firefighters resumed operations at the site based on the new plans developed with SPSI, he said. With the pumps and lines put in place by SPSI, Stewart said the firefighters would be self-sufficient regarding water and would no longer have to draw on the city of Parkersburg’s water system.
With its specialized equipment, Stewart said SPSI “is going to methodically go from one side of the complex to the other. We still have a hot spot in the middle that we haven’t been able to get because our hose lines don’t reach. (SPSI’s) first attack is to tunnel straight into that spot so we can put water on that fire and get that fire out. That will ameliorate a lot of the smoke,” he said.
While a couple of the excavators focus on that effort, Stewart said the others will starting moving against areas of debris to break them up so water can be placed on those hot spots.
“Eventually, they’re hoping within a week they can make it from one end of the building to other,” Stewart said of SPSI’s plan.
Stewart said SPSI will only be working during daytime hours because of safety issues when moving equipment around on the debris field. During night hours, the contractor will back off and the firefighters will continue working to put water on the site using their own equipment and the SPSI-placed high volume lines.
Stewart said SPSI’s work will help reduce the load being carried by the firefighters, especially by helping to reduce the amount of water shuttling being required of the departments to keep water supplied to the engines hosing down the debris.
West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy said the dedication of the local firefighters has been “unbelievable” as many have dedicated themselves to fighting the fire.
Sandy reiterated the governor’s commitment to the area.
“During a conversation with the governor, he said to me ‘We must take care of our citizens and do what is necessary to protect our citizens,'” Sandy said.
West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael said the most important thing to the state is the safety and well-being of the citizens of Parkersburg and the surrounding areas as it relates to this event.
“There is no amount of money the state is going to withhold as you move forward to address this concern,” he said. “We absolutely want to bring every resource available to address this immediately.”
Delegate Frank Deem, R-Wood, of Vienna, said Monday that Justice had called him earlier in the day to check in about the fire, and to assure him the state would be making available any assistance it had to offer. Deem did not have details as to what that assistance might entail Monday afternoon.
Air quality has been an issue as officials have been seeking testing.
Washington County Emergency Management Agency Director Rich Hays said he’s been in regular contact with Wood County officials and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“We haven’t had a lot of problems or reports,” he said.
Smoke in the Belpre area Monday morning cleared up over the course of the day, Hays said. Representatives of the Ohio EPA were testing air quality there, he said.
“All the results were within levels where they needed to be, but they were going to continue monitoring,” Hays said.
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said this fire has taken a toll on all the local departments.
“I don’t think there is any department here designed to fight fire for over 48 hours,” he said.
The county cannot afford to just let this fire continually burn in hopes it will burn itself out, which Couch said would take weeks to do.
“That is not safe for our environment and not good for the health and safety of our citizens or the citizens across the river in Belpre and Washington County,” he said.
Couch said they were prepared to bankrupt the county to fight this fire. Since getting the financial commitment from the state, the resources are in place to fight the fire effectively.
“We want to knock this thing down and get back to normal as quickly as possible,” he said.
Staff writers Evan Bevins and Wayne Towner and Editor Christina Myer contributed to this story.