By Xzander Stephens
It was around 12:20 a.m. I had just gotten off a 10 hour shift, grabbed my evening meal and was heading back to my apartment when by chance I happened to notice what initially looked like a gas flame at a plant off in the distance. After persuading my ride we decided to investigate as something just felt abnormal. So, we got off 7th street and began heading to the interstate. Once there we began to notice more and more that something was undoubtedly on fire. By the time we were close enough for me to start recording, what we saw was the biggest fire I had ever seen in person, with a thick black column of smoke rising shooting out from it as sirens whined away in the background.
At the time, I assumed it was some freak accident at one of the plants here, that it would be put out, and I’d hear about it on our local news station, WTAP, or read it in the local paper, Parkersburg News and Sentinal; so I resigned myself to that fact that there was no way I could possibly help, headed home, ate my meal and went to sleep. What I would woke up to and lived through over the next week was far different than anything I could imagine.
What had taken place at roughly 12:30 a.m. (according to official sources) was a former Ames tool plant, owned by Intercontinental Export-Import Intl. or IEI, a subsidiary of SirNaik, had caught on fire and was quickly engulfed in flames from the onset. The city of Parkersburg itself was thoroughly unprepared for it despite hosting 30 or more chemical plants in and around the city, 4 to 5 of which were also IEI warehouses. Over 100 first responder firefighters from 40 different fire stations, some of which came from neighboring Ohio, as well as Specialized Professional Services Inc (an environmental emergency company) came to put out what many in Parkersburg began to call Chemblaze or #ChemBlaze2017.
Despite sporadic rainfall and the relentless day-and-night efforts of the first responders, the blaze continued for nearly a week; the thick black column being ever present, which traveled from “ground zero” to neighboring working class communities such as the homes directly across the street from the plant, as well as communities off of 7th street across the river of the north side of Parkersburg, George St., East 12th Street, Swan St., Lynn St., and so on. Residents of neighboring towns 30 miles away have also reported citizens detecting the distinctive smell of burnt chemicals in the air.
A thick, inescapable chemical odor was constantly present throughout the course of the week, which forced the city and state officials to declare a state of emergency. Schools were closed, including the local colleges. Citizens were warned to stay indoors. Gas masks were being distributed into two separate locations, one in Parkersburg, and the other in its sister city of Vienna. Myself and many of my neighbors, even while staying indoors, experienced several physical symptoms such as nausea, burning eyes, headaches, increased respiratory problems, and so forth, even as recent as day 6 of the disaster, with the fire largely put out and no visible smoke present hovering over the communities.
From initial reports from the local hospital, WVU Camden Clark Medical Centre, roughly 50-60 patients have been treated in relation to the Ames plant fire, many with hallmark symptoms of chemical pneumonitis. Though this figure is likely to increase as more details come in as this is only reflective of patients going to the ER and does not include patients whom may have scheduled an appointment with their primary physicians.
Additionally, primary sources have reported that several of the first responders that were working on putting out the fire could be seen in the middle of the street, visibly ill and had to be taken to hospital. Likewise, mental healthcare agencies initiated several protocols prohibiting clients from going outside unless for scheduled medical appointments.
Two days after the fire began, and amidst the usual song and dance of “everything is fine, it’s all safe,” the city also initiated a strict water boil protocol, urging citizens to boil their water before use so as too neutralize the water of possible contaminents related to the chemical fire. A local news website, newscenter.tv received information giving an incomplete list of chemicals contained in the IEI warehouse which included PVC, nylon, formaldehyde, carbon black, titanium dioxide, anhydride TLV 0.1pm, PTFE (teflon), styrene-acrylonitrile, polybutylene terephtalete, acrylic sheet, etc.
Three days into the disaster, a Wood County Commision meeting was held where a IEI representative, Sunny Naik, was present, and made the following statements:
“A disaster of this nature is something we have never encountered before. The (fire departments) have the most technical knowledge on a disaster of this sort…We provided the MSDS of the things in the building. We will take all responsibility for their insurance companies as the No. 1 priority will be cleaning up the site.”
Sounds reasonable enough, aside from within these statements is one glaring bold-face corporate lie, typical of situations such as this. First, in regards to the statement about the MSDS, state officials have said a search of state records revealed that absolutely NO inventories of those materials had been filed under the state and federal chemical right-to-know law that requires such disclosures for certain chemicals if stored in certain amounts.
Second, in 2012, a similar albeit much smaller fire had taken place at the exact same plant, but was quickly extinguished. Additionally, state environmental inspectors visited the IEI warehouse earlier this year and found numerous violations that indicated continued problems at a facility. Two local volunteer firefighters had warned nearly 10 years before could be at risk of a major fire, Department of Environmental Protection records showed this week.
In response to the company man’s statements, Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said no (as in zero) emergency and hazardous chemical inventory forms, supplied to emergency response entities to help plan for and respond to chemical disasters, were filed for the IEI facility, stating:
“My department includes Homeland Security Emergency Management which is the recipient of chemical inventory stockpile reports. We’re not aware of any reporting by this facility to Homeland Security under applicable federal law.”
In 2015, the WVDEP issued a consent order regarding IEI’s failure to file discharge monitoring reports dealing with water runoff from the property. As well, according to DEP sources IEI was slapped with a penalty of $80,000 and was forced to pay out $20,000 of that. The DEP chief communications officer, Jake Glance, stated that following this initial payment by IEI, “the rest of it was contingent on them filing their DMRs with us, and they never did.”
Following an investigation in February of 2017 of the atrocious conditions of the warehouse, the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management said, “waste and pellets were still scattered around the site,” a diesel spill had not been fully cleaned up, and storage drums left outside were deteriorating. Additionally, the company had continued water pollution violations and had not submitted required monthly progress reports to the DEP, the agency records show. In summary the investigators state “the site was improved from the last inspection, but some further work is still needed to remove remaining waste (wood, plastic, misc.) on the property.”
Going back to 2012, at the same IEI plant an electrical fire broke out and was quickly put out by local fire departments. Former City Fire Inspector Tim Flinn also stated that the “sprinkler system didn’t work.”
The former Ames True Temper Tool plant, now an IEI plastics warehouse, also had a contract with another local plant, DuPont, to store its chemicals though following the fire. DuPont officials have attempted to distance themselves and obfuscate their relationship to the IEI plant – a DuPont Co. spokesman has said DuPont “does not have any direct affiliation with the warehouse” but that “the warehouse was storing plastic materials, some of which were purchased from DuPont.” To give the full corporate background surrounding these comments, Polymer Alliances Services and Intercontinental Export Import are part of a SirNaik group of companies or simply put a waste management company. Prior to the fire IEI did purchase products from DuPont’s Washington Works plant and was storing those products at the warehouse. So in effect, DuPont sold IEI waste to be stored but somehow has no direct connection to said plant.
In short, all of these contextual events render the statement made by IEI invalid; the statement surrounding the giving over the MSDS to first responders is insufficient when this company has failed to report to government agencies a complete list of chemicals contained at the warehouse per state and federal law. Despite being told for the last 10 years that conditions at the plant were unacceptable, despite a fire in 2012 and making zero improvements and despite habitual and willful negligence and violation of established environmental laws and protocols.
While no official answer has been given as to the exact cause of this particular fire, given the objective evidences that are available at this time, it’s a safe bet to assume investigators will come back with a report of corporate negligence as being the root cause – something all to familiar with the citizens of Parkersburg, as well as for West Virginians in general.
This is an unfortunate pattern in West Virginian history the worker has been forced to endure, in a long history of being one of the most heavily exploited states in the union – being used primarily as an extraction site for corporations; coupled with an extremely bloody worker’s rights record. The worst industrial accident in U.S. history, for example, happened when 750 workers drilling the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the early half of the 1930s died from silicosis. Workers were being forced to break through the 99.4 percent pure silica in Fayette County, WV, as part of a hydroelectric project. The silica the workers had been exposed to and inhaled during this process created extensive and fibrous nodules on the lungs of those working. The workers found it harder to breathe and, ultimately, many suffocated to death as a result.
In early 2014, up to 300,000 residents in Charleston, WV, were without access to clean water for several days after a major chemical spill. State environmental officials estimated as much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to process coal (crude MCHM) spilled into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River.
Going back to August 11, 1985, Charleston, WV, a small cloud of toxic chemicals escaped from a Union Carbide plant that morning, and at least 135 residents were treated for eye, throat and lung irritation. Twenty-eight of the injured were admitted to nearby hospitals. The chemical that escaped that day was first identified as aldicarb oxime. Then later that evening, company officials said aldicarb oxime was only one constituent of the cloud of gas that also contained several other chemicals.
Aldicarb oxime is combined with methyl isocyanate, or MIC to produce aldicarb, a compound used in pesticides. The Institute plant manufactures aldicarb and ships it to another facility. Health officials at the time attempted to reassure the public that everything was fine and these chemicals were “non-toxic” despite numerous medical cases contradicting this narrative.
Coming back to Parkersburg, WV, as recently as February of this year, DuPont and Chemours, (a spin-off company which now owns and operates the Washington Works plant in Wood County), agreed to each pay $335.35 million dollars, or $670.7 million dollars total, to settle the 3,500 cases in the class-action lawsuits against DuPont over damages from illegal exposure to the chemical C8 in U.S. District Court in Columbus. Residents of Parkersburg had been reporting a whole cornucopia of medical problems, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy induced hypertension including preeclampsia and hypercholesterolemia, and death.
Additionally, farmers also reported livestock such as cows were also being effected by exposure to C8 with system including bleeding from orifices, vomiting blood, tumors, seizures, blindness, tremors, foaming at the mouth, and death. Upon dissecting the effected animals, farmers noted an abnormal foul odor coming from its organs as well as a bright green color to said organs.
This is all from the exact company that starting in the 1980s and leading into the 1990s began to buy acreages of land from resident farmers and landowners for landfills, assuring them that what was going to be dumped was just ash, scrap metal, and so on. After years of reports of the wide array of environmental and medical issues facing the community, some sought legal recourse and their lawyers began digging to uncover the root causes of their problems. Internal documents from DuPont’s Delaware headquarters reveal that Bernard J. Reilly, a legal counsel to the company, wrote the following to his colleagues about the incident after a lawyer, Rob Billet, (an attorney at a Cincinnati firm called Taft Stettinius & Hollister), had begun to uncover the exact chemical causing the problems saying quote “the shit is about to hit the fan in WV (…) the lawyer for the farmer finally realizes the surfactant [C8] issue (…) Fuck him.”
All of this taking place in an 154-year history of corporate exploitation and stranglehold of state politics. Which leads us to good ole Jim Justice. Earlier this year, Justice joined “president” (and noted rapist) Donald Trump at a rally in West Virginia to announce that he was switching his party affiliation from Democrat (read Coalcrat) to Republican. Justice has been a strong supporter of Trump both during his presidential campaign and since he conned his way into the presidency. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump made several stops on West Virginia where he spoonfed West Virginian workers false hopes of factories and mines opening up; dangling coal in front of our faces just like every other Tom, Dick and Harry politician that comes through our mountains.
West Virginians buying into these farcical narratives out of economic desperation gave Trump 489,371 votes, giving him a landslide victory of 68.5% of the state’s total votes, and while Jim Justice (after several days of continuous chemical smoke) has made some statements about the Ames plant fire, the Trump Administration has made a total of ZERO comments about the Ames plant disaster (odd since he apparently “loved” us during the election year), as have national media outlets in general. This, combined with the state’s delayed response to the disaster, as well as the city running out of funds and water to combat the fire, left many residents feeling abandoned by everyone and left to survive if they could.
Where this political background involving Trump becomes most significant is Trump’s proposed 31-percent budget cut for the EPA, which would greatly reduce if not strip the resources needed to respond to emergencies such as the Parkersburg fire. Much of the other state-level work performed by the agency would be eliminated or sharply reduced. EPA staff and scientists at its regional offices across the country regularly respond to emergency calls from city and state officials during disasters such as this. Funds to respond to many of those calls, including from West Virginia officials, would no longer be available under Trump’s budget. So, in effect, this is what the Trump-Justice duo has in store for Parkersburg residents moving forward.
As of this week a class action lawsuit has been filed in the Wood County Circuit Court, by Kathy A. Brown, an attorney with Brown-Houston PLLC in Charleston, on behalf of Timothy Callihan and others. Defendants named in the suit are Surnaik Holdings of West Virginia LLC, SirNaik LLC, Polymer Alliance Services LLC, Green Sustainable Solutions LLC and Intercontinental Export Import Inc.
As for the true medical and environmental cost of this disaster, this remains to be seen, but with a state history of corporate coverups, state pandering and collusion with various corporations, no regulations, zero social planning, and little recourse for all the citizens of effected areas, such as Parkersburg, it doesn’t look to good.