Longtime Belle Volunteer Fire Department member David Fletcher recalls that it was easy back in the 1950s and ’60s for the town’s volunteer firefighters and employees at the DuPont chemical plant to stay in sync.
They were often one and the same.
That’s not the case in 2021, six years after Chemours, which is based in Delaware, was founded as a spinoff from DuPont and took ownership of the Belle plant site.
But it’s as important as ever for the Chemours in-house fire brigade, and other responders and local emergency officials, to be on the same page.
The Dec. 8 explosion at the Optima Belle chemical facility on the Chemours site that killed one worker and injured two others continued an all-too-long history of chemical incidents throughout West Virginia, particularly in the Kanawha Valley.
Only Texas has been the focus of more investigations by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, than West Virginia since 2006.
The Chemical Safety Board has conducted seven investigations of incidents that killed 14 people in West Virginia since 2007. Four of those investigations have focused on incidents in Kanawha County.
But despite a history investigators have said includes critical breakdowns in communication between plant personnel and area emergency responders, local officials like Fletcher, who also is Belle’s mayor, say they’re well-equipped to respond safely and efficiently to nearby chemical incidents.
Two workers were killed when a waste tank exploded at the Bayer CropScience chemical plant in Institute in 2008, prompting a review by the Chemical Safety Board.
The board’s final report on the explosion found that poor communications between Bayer emergency operations staff and local responders delayed a community shelter-in-place notification. It also might have resulted in toxic exposure to on-scene police and fire responders, including from the Tyler Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, who returned to their station with contaminated gear.
In January 2010, a release of highly toxic phosgene exposed a veteran operator at the former DuPont facility in Belle — the site now owned by Chemours — leading to his death a day later.
Board investigators found that emergency response organizations again expressed concern about the timeliness and quality of information provided to dispatchers and EMS personnel. The board noted that the issues raised mirrored those identified in the Bayer CropScience investigation.
DuPont lacked a dedicated radio and telephone system and emergency notification process to convey the nature of an emergency at the Belle plant, the board found.
“Our personnel went into that environment and, frankly, they should have had better information,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said.
But Fletcher said Chemours plant and local emergency responders have been on the same page.
“Emergency personnel at the plant do a heck of a job with safety and maintenance and everything else,” Fletcher said. “I think our plant employees are making sure that we do stay safe.”
Fletcher noted that Belle volunteer firefighters train with Chemours personnel at the fire department and at the company site, where they gain familiarity with the site’s layout.
“We’ve always had that safety factor,” Fletcher said.
Chemours engages with its onsite tenants to make sure the company’s site-safety personnel are knowledgeable about what materials are used. The company also evaluates proposed new chemicals before they are introduced to the site, company spokeswoman Robin Ollis-Stemple said, adding that each tenant is responsible for safely managing their raw materials and processes once they’re introduced.
“Our chemical workers, I believe, continue to be the safest in the world,” Carper said.
Kanawha County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department personnel have increased five-fold in recent years, Carper said, bolstering the county’s response capabilities for incidents involving hazardous materials.
Carper added that the county recently improved its outdoor warning system. Not all sirens outside the Belle plant worked in the moments after the December explosion that prompted a four-hour shelter-in-place for areas within a 2-mile radius of the blast.
There was an average daily combined amount of more than 275 tons of 18 chemicals — 16 of them toxic and half of them flammable — at the Optima Belle facility on the Chemours site in 2019, according to Optima Belle’s annual Tier II chemical inventory data sheet it submitted for 2019. The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires industrial operators to report on the storage, use and releases of hazardous chemicals to federal, state and local governments.
The State Emergency Response Commission has upgraded the reporting system for inventories of hazardous chemicals. Lora Lipscomb, public information officer of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security Division of Emergency Management, said an automated Tier II manager program, purchased and implemented in 2016, gives current locations and amounts of hazardous chemical inventories while also maintaining historical data.
“This electronic system gives emergency responders immediate access to facility chemical inventory information,” Lipscomb said.
But a Tier II chemical inventory is a backward-looking document.
Local emergency personnel did not have information about a chlorinated dry bleach chemical present in the fire that burned for two hours after the Optima Belle explosion.
The annual federal Tier II reporting period for the previous year is Jan. 1 to March 1 for hazardous chemicals that exceeded minimum reporting thresholds at facilities in the previous calendar year. Optima says the day of the explosion was the first time it processed the chlorinated dry bleach chemical at the facility.
Having only the previous year’s Tier II reports on hand means emergency officials could be underestimating the variety or volume of chemicals at a site.
There were 15 chemicals in Optima’s 2019 Tier II chemical inventory that weren’t in its 2018 inventory, which, in turn, had listed eight more than 2017’s inventory. The facility’s average daily amount of methanol, which also was present in the Dec. 8 fire, rose from 9,000 pounds in 2017 to 40,000 pounds in 2019.
“A chemical facility does have a degree of risk, sometimes great risk,” Carper said, “so it requires excellent management, a very well-thought-out plan and response.”
A Chemours fire brigade was first to arrive at the scene of the Dec. 8 explosion. It briefed Belle volunteer firefighters and county emergency responders on the chemicals involved and the necessary precautions. Responders opted to let the fire burn out.
With so many toxic and flammable chemicals onsite, the stakes couldn’t be higher for emergency responders. Fletcher said he knows Chemours and Belle fire personnel are likely to be tested again, and that, because of their training and experience together, he’s confident they’ll be ready.
“Over the past 48-plus years that I’ve been here, there’s been plenty of opportunities for Belle fire department and the DuPont, now Chemours plant, to operate together,” Fletcher said.