PARKERSBURG — West Virginia officials are still unsure what materials caught fire at a warehouse at the old Ames Tool Plant in Parkersburg on Saturday, or how it might affect the health of Wood County residents.
Gov. Jim Justice spoke with reporters outside the factory Tuesday morning. He said firefighters were unsure how long the blaze would continue.
Small flames remained on the surface of fallen bricks and beams in the morning. Excavators and fire trucks hummed behind Justice.
Justice said he requested aid from the federal government, in the hope of getting financial help or professional advice on how to address health concerns.
“I don’t have the knowledge or the expertise within me to know what the environmental impact could be to our citizens yet,” he said. “And we’re trying to source all the professional advice we can source, and do the right things for our people.”
On Monday, Justice declared a state of emergency, to help the county pay for firefighting and environmental tests.
The Governor’s Contingency Fund may be used to foot the bill, and Justice said he hopes to later recoup that money.
“We should recover every dime of that back to the state through the insurance companies,” he said, adding that it’s unclear what kind of insurance covers the warehouse.
The facility is owned by Intercontinental Export Import Inc. The company is working to identify what materials caught fire, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said.
“We’ve been told that helpful records were destroyed in the fire but that there may be electronic records that will help paint something of a portrait about what was on site,” he said.
The warehouse might have contained PVC, nylon, carbon black, titanium dioxide, fiberglass, formaldehyde, Teflon and styrene, according to a list from public officials.
Messina said the company provided officials with an outdated material-safety data sheet. The records list previous materials stored on site, but it’s unclear what products were in the facility when it caught fire.
He also joined local officials in confirming the apparent safety of local drinking water.
“It has been stressed to me by the officials here that this has no impact whatsoever on the drinking water sources for these communities.”
In a follow-up email, Messina said the local drinking water is sourced from aquifers, not a stream.
“The nearest stream intake for a water system is in Huntington,” he wrote.
Though the Parkersburg Utility Board issued a boil-water advisory on Monday, it was the result of a water main break.
Parkersburg resident Christopher Proffitt said he started buying bottled water after the fire started.
He works at Dunkin Donuts, less than 2 miles from the fire. He washed a window and looked at the distant smoke on Tuesday.
“The wind shifted,” he said to a co-worker. “The smell is coming back.”
One of his co-workers awoke to a car covered in ash, and another suffered from several asthma attacks, Proffitt said.
“It looked like an epic out of ‘Moses,’ ” he said of the fire. “I mean, it was a giant column of smoke.”
Proffitt said his concerns are the result of past environmental hazards in Parkersburg.
“They can say a lot of things, but we already have water problems,” he said. “They already have water problems that are linked to the river.”
Heather Royer, a Parkersburg resident for more than five years, attended a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
She asked the governor if it is safe to house residents in a shelter that sits less than 3 miles from the fire. The American Red Cross established the shelter at South Parkersburg Baptist Church.
“And my other question is, what can I do within my home?” Royer asked. “I’ve been told to take shelter, but what can I do within my home to protect the air quality?”
Justice said there was no immediate answer to her questions.
“That’s where I think we’ve got to have the federal government and our state people come in here and tell us exactly what we’re dealing with, and what we need to do,” he said.
Royer later said she works as a teacher at Van Devender Middle School, in Parkersburg. She visited the school Sunday, and Wood County schools remained closed Monday and Tuesday.
“The smell of burnt plastic was very prevalent,” she said. “I lasted about 30 minutes in the building, and I was out. My friend stayed for about two hours, and she said she had a throbbing headache.”
Wood County Commissioner David Couch said extensive testing of the factory is impossible until the fire is extinguished. Information will become available, he said, although it could take several days.
“We don’t want to hide anything, because my kids live here,” he said at the news conference. “So we want to release everything fast, because you all have a right to know.”