State officials do not know what is in warehouses

Carmichael: Lawmakers ready to talk about legislative solutions

PARKERSBURG — The IEI Plastics warehouse fire in south Parkersburg will encourage legislation next year addressing shortfalls in state law, officials said.

The fire at the warehouse, the former Ames shovel plant on Camden Avenue, burned and smoldered about a week, raising issues of air quality from the smoke and fumes and the ability of responders to ascertain what materials were being stored in the facility.

The burning plastic resins and materials stored at the warehouse sent smoke hundreds of feet into the air, which was seen and smelled as far north as Cambridge, Ohio.

Air quality monitoring indicated that levels of particulates in the air were generally within acceptable U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, but there were “spikes” detected during which the concentrations exceeded those guidelines.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department advised residents to avoid contact with the smoke and remain indoors until the odor disappeared.

Not knowing what was burning in the warehouse as the material safety data sheets were unavailable, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued an order for the company to provide what materials were stored in the warehouse.

The fire also prompted local and state officials to inspect other IEI facilities in Wood County.

Lubeck Volunteer Fire Chief Mark Stewart was incident commander for the fire and is an assistant state fire marshal.

“All these locations have been or are in the process of being inspected, along with other locations in several other counties of West Virginia, by a joint task force of investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,” he said in an emailed statement.

Asked what other counties are involved and whether all of those locations belong to the Naik companies, of which IEI is a part, Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said more information would be released by task force members once they are finished. He added that the initial facilities inspected in Wood County included sites not associated with IEI.

Lawmakers have already talked about what can legislatively be done, said state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. The Legislature, which meets monthly for interim sessions, convenes in regular session in January.

“It’s just good public policy to know the contents of those warehouses,” Carmichael said.

A single source where people can access information about the materials being stored in such warehouses apparently does not exist.

Any new legislation should at least require a company to regularly provide up-to-date safety data sheets to the fire marshal and emergency services agencies, said John Reed, director of the Wood County Solid Waste Authority.

“If they did that, I would be fine with it,” he said.

By the nature of such businesses, the materials being stored can frequently change, so at some point the company’s honesty will have to be relied upon, he said.

“An honor system,” Reed said.

However, inspections and monitoring of such facilities appear to be issues that need addressed, according to Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood.

Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, believes legislators are likely to address those issues in the next session. Similar situations more than likely exist across the state, he said.

“I’m certainly willing to look at storage issues,” Kelly said. “First, I want to see what all the reports say.”

Attempting to legislate a solution, such as requiring an agency to perform more inspections, doesn’t solve the problem unless the financial means and personnel are included, Reed said. Inspections require someone to physically perform them, he said.

“The problem with legislation is enforcement of the legislation,” Reed said. “If there’s no one to do the inspection, that’s a problem.”

In addition to the Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the fire. A cause has not been announced.

The circumstances are similar to the 2014 Freedom Industries tank leak into the Elk River that contaminated the drinking water supply for numerous public water systems, Anderson said.

The Legislature perhaps moved too fast and created rules that were excessive in some situations and would have caused a tremendous financial hardship on smaller companies with facilities that didn’t threaten water supplies to comply, he said.

“It was going to bankrupt those businesses,” he said.

The Legislature has since changed some of the regulations it had passed, Anderson said.

“Let’s proceed in a deliberate manner,” Anderson said.

The 350,000-square-foot warehouse caught fire around 12:30 a.m. Oct. 21. The fire started at one end of the facility and moved to the other.

Weather conditions on Oct. 21 and 22 allowed the smoke and flames to rise hundreds of feet into the air. The weather changed in the next few days, and the smoke and odor were held closer to ground level.