Good Policy: Material storage rules should be strengthened

Last month’s enormous fire at the IEI Plastics warehouse in part of the former Ames site in Parkersburg turned out to be an eye-opener for residents and public officials alike. As officials scrambled to find out what, precisely, was burning and sending pungent fumes into the air inside a massive column of black smoke for more than a week, there were no clear answers.

Time and again, reporters and curious citizens were stymied as they asked a simple question: What was in there?

It seems now that perhaps even the owners of the facility were not certain. Safety Data Sheets available to first responders at the time were incomplete and likely did not reflect what was in the building at the time. More accurate sheets were destroyed in the fire. When pressed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to submit an accurate, current list of what was being stored in the warehouse, IEI Plastics officials submitted information the DEP determined did not satisfy its request for answers.

Meanwhile, research attempts by numerous reporters and citizen groups yielded an upsetting realization. It is possible no one knows what is in all the warehouses that hold industrial material and much more, in West Virginia. There appears to be no publicly available (or even, available to first responders) source for information on what is being stored in deteriorating buildings close to our schools, shopping centers, churches, hospitals and our homes.

It is good to know that, according to state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, lawmakers recognize this as a serious problem, and are talking about solutions.

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

Indeed.

Emergency responders, as part of their training, learn what the U.S. Department of Transportation HazMat placards on trucks and rail cars mean, so they will know what they are facing in the event of an accident. Some of them, after this training, have been known to shake their heads and say, “If people only knew what was traveling through their towns …” The key word there is traveling. Those materials are moving, yet the requirements for making sure responders and informed members of the public can identify them are strict and uniform.

Apparently, some similar materials, sitting in buildings throughout our neighborhoods, fall under far less rigid standards, here in the Mountain State.

Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, is correct. Lawmakers must proceed on this matter in “a deliberate manner;” but they must proceed. They cannot allow this opportunity to keep the public and emergency responders safer and better informed to go up in smoke.

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