While the Center for Progressive Reform staff advocate for stronger protections from toxic chemical spills, none of our experts assumed that one of our own would gain firsthand experience on the matter.
That all changed last January, when Board Member and Scholar Sid Shapiro received a surprise midnight phone call warning him that a nearby fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., had just caught fire. Inside the plant and stored in a tank outside were 500 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, threatening to incinerate nearby communities.
In the In Our Backyard Podcast, hosted by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Shapiro, David Flores, a former senior policy analyst at the Center, and Senior Policy Analyst Darya Minovi shared their perspectives on the Winston-Salem incident and what it means for communities at risk of chemical spills, which are disproportionately low-wealth communities of color. They explored the health safety risks involved and the role of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations in preventing disasters like this in the future.
Flores kicked off the series in episode five by describing the causes of the event. The plant had not met modern fire code regulations — having been grandfathered into the newest code and bypassing it — so when a small fire broke out, it quickly grew.
Given the lack of basic preventative measures, such as sprinklers and fire alarms, Flores was astounded that the fire burned itself out and didn’t ignite the 400 tons of ammonium nitrate chemical stored inside the plant and the extra 100 tons in a railcar outside. Had it been compacted and heated, as could happen when a building collapses during a fire, the ammonium nitrate could have exploded, leveling buildings and killing anyone nearby.
Ammonium nitrate, Flores added, is not yet regulated by the EPA’s Risk Management Rule as a hazardous chemical, even though it has caused devastating explosions before. The last incident was in 2013, in West, Texas, at another fertilizer plant, which killed 15, injured more than 260, and destroyed more than 150 buildings.
Safer alternatives are readily available for fertilizer production, which begs the question: Why hasn’t the EPA taken action to regulate similar hazardous chemical plants across the United States? Surrounding communities are directly impacted when disaster strikes and are at increasing risk as our climate changes and as facilities fail to adapt or upgrade to handle new environmental conditions.
‘We were just lucky’
In episode seven, Shapiro described his experience with the Winston-Salem incident as a nearby resident. He, along with about 6,500 other people who live within a one-mile radius of the plant, were urged to evacuate when the fire broke out near midnight to protect themselves from the equivalent of “a chemical bomb capable of wiping out blocks of the city.” The city lacked the resources to enforce a mandatory evacuation, he said, and the fire was too dangerous to attempt to extinguish, so the only action was to wait for the fire to burn out and hope that an explosion wouldn’t occur.
The EPA’s responsibility with regard to chemical disasters is to, first, prevent them and, second, mitigate the impacts of those that do occur,, both of which were severely lacking in this incident.
Both the fire and potential explosion were preventable through proper regulation and safety measures. Shapiro pointed out that such industrial areas are often surrounded by low-wealth communities of color who are driven to the area due to a lack of affordable housing in safer neighborhoods. Already under-resourced and disenfranchised, these communities face the greatest risk of harm from inadequate industry regulations. “We were just lucky,” Shapiro said. The potential explosion could have been catastrophic.
Public health and safety
Minovi rounded out the series in the season’s eighth episode with a perspective on public health and safety, explaining that the area around the fertilizer plant already had prior air pollution burdens from several other sources, all of which were exacerbated by the fire.
The hazardous chemicals released into the air and recorded by EPA monitoring after the fire were particularly concerning for individuals with respiratory issues. From simple lung irritation to exacerbated asthma, the range of potential adverse health effects is wide.
Minovi highlighted Winston-Salem’s initiative to provide financial resources to those affected by the fire, which she called a great start, but she pointed out that environmental injustice must be addressed beyond direct financial support.
In each episode, the unifying theme was that the EPA must uphold its responsibility to regulate hazardous chemical facilities across the United States.
Aboveground tanks, such as the parked railcar at the Winston-Salem plant, are regularly left unchecked and unmonitored, threatening communities and the environment with spills and explosions.
The Center for Progressive Reform is committed to advocating for the regulation of hazardous materials, and we are currently recommending programs and reforms in Virginia and nationwide to prevent disasters and protect those at risk.
You can listen to the In Our Backyard Podcast series—including Episodes 5-8 featuring David Flores, Darya Minovi, and Sid Shapiro— online here or wherever you get your podcasts.