Prevent Toxic Smoke Disaster

When firefighters began arriving at the IEI Plastics warehouse in Wood County on Oct. 21, they knew they had a problem. Thick, black smoke was beginning to billow into the air.

But the firefighters did not know what was in the smoke or whether they needed to evacuate the area.

Firefighters going into blazing buildings wear respirator equipment, if at all possible. They do that because they understand smoke from some flaming materials is highly toxic. Other substances emit smoke that may not harm those breathing it immediately, but can have long-term adverse effects.

Plastics are notorious for being dangerous when burned.

As the blaze continued to consume the warehouse –flames and smoke persisted for nine days — more and more firefighters arrived to fight it. For days, neither they nor thousands of people living and working in the area and forced to breath smoke-laden air, were certain how it would affect them.

Eventually, state officials demanded and got information from the company on what was being stored in the warehouse. Smoke from some of the material stored there could have been hazardous to area residents’ health. Fortunately, no serious problems have been reported yet.

Still, the potential for a catastrophe greater than what occurred was there.

After a major leak of chemicals into the Elk River at Charleston in early 2014, state legislators sprang into action. A set of new regulations collectively known as the “tank law” was enacted.

Lawmakers may have overreacted, to judge by complaints from some industries. Clearly, however, something needed to be done to lessen the threat of disastrous spills such as that into the Elk River.

But the “tank law” covers only liquid chemicals stored in tanks. It does not extend to solids such as plastics and some chemicals. It does not cover potentially harmful gases (though natural gas is regulated).

Obviously, one priority for the coming year needs to be developing reasonable new regulations on storage of solid materials such as those stored at IEI. West Virginia legislators should take a close look at proposals for such rules, consult with affected industries as well as material safety experts, and put new, enforceable regulations in place.