It’s been more than two weeks since an industrial fire began in Parkersburg at a recycled plastics warehouse and burned for more than eight days. It’s still largely unknown what exactly burned that week, which continues to raise concerns for some over how the fire impacted the area's air quality.
Two air quality experts say, after reviewing air monitoring results from a variety of responding agencies, efforts by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection weren’t thorough enough to determine potential threats to public safety.
Dr. Anthony Wexler of the University of California, Davis’ Air Quality Research Center has questions about initial air monitoring results from the West Virginia and Ohio state environmental regulatory agencies. Samples were collected during the first few days while the plastics fire burned in South Parkersburg, near a residential area.
“You look at the plume of smoke coming out of that fire and you look at the numbers on those measurements and they're just they just don't reconcile with each other. But the numbers and the measurements are basically zero. They didn't find anything.," said Wexler.
"And certainly if you're at the right distance from the fire it was close, but not too close. And that's what you're going to see because the smoke is going straight up and you're going to see nice fresh air there. But, somewhere, that stuff coming back down again and people are hopefully not living where that happens. But, that's the key to doing this measurement properly.”
Wexler said the numbers shown indicate that DEP and Ohio EPA didn’t capture any of the plume and, therefore, doesn’t accurately reflect what might’ve been a threat to public safety. He also noted that additional monitoring from Arkansas-based consultants Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health was more detailed due to particle phase analysis, in addition to gas phase analysis.
Dr. Kevin Crist of Ohio University’s Center for Air Quality -- whose program receives funding from the Ohio EPA -- said West Virginia DEP’s testing was not thorough. He questioned the monitoring equipment the agency deployed. DEP used handheld devices that read the air quickly but vaguely, only testing for non-specific volatile organic compounds, as well as ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and chlorine.
“You do want those direct reading instruments that are not very specific and not that totally accurate, but good enough,” said Crist. “I think after I see all of [the monitoring from additional agencies], I would say the risk levels to the population as a whole were pretty low during this fire. But I don't think you could say that just from what the DEP was reporting.”
Crist said combined efforts and methodologies from all responding agencies, which included gas canister captures, provided a better idea of what was in the air -- given that no one knew what materials were being stored at the facility. He said the West Virginia DEP likely was counting on that level of analysis from other agencies.
“Maybe [the West Virginia DEP] were relying on Ohio EPA to do the gas canister sampling or maybe they thought the consultants were there. But, you know, their sampling seemed to be not comprehensive,” said Crist.
Over the course of a week -- and after multiple requests for interviews and clarifications about air monitoring methods -- DEP chief communications officer Jake Glace confirmed via email that the agency “focused on sampling that it had the capability to perform, knowing that it would not be the only sampling conducted.”
Glance also noted the agency’s use of the Division of Air Quality’s stationary monitor in neighboring Vienna, which detected nearly twice the level of particulate matter on Sunday, a day after the fire began, as compared to the Thursday prior to the blaze.
Wood County Commissioner Blair Couch said he appreciated the DEP’s rapid response, but recognized shortcomings in the agency’s monitoring capabilities, which is why he quickly contracted the environmental consulting firm Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health.
“It was quickly decided on Sunday night or first thing Monday morning that we've got an intelligence gap,” said Couch. “So, we had to go find an outside vendor at a cost to the taxpayer that provided us a high level and the community monitoring -- and they even went inside buildings and the schools. I was not going to be here in December trying to explain why people were coughing up blood now.”
At various points, CTEH’s monitoring detected what Dr. Crist of Ohio University described as “very high” levels of particulate matter weighing 2.5 microns or less. He noted that short-term exposure at those levels doesn’t necessarily pose any particular health risks, but further analysis of the particulate matter should be done to know its exact makeup.
DEP provided sampling data to Incident Command, who consulted with local hospital officials and the county health department to determine whether to issue evacuate or shelter-in-place orders should be issued. The county issued a voluntary shelter in place in the days following the fire.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported last week there were dangerous spikes in particulate matter after midnight until dawn the first day of the fire, according to its air quality index. Such measurements indicate that people with heart and lung disease, older adults and children should have remained indoors under those conditions.