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Ohio Valley EMA Officials: Fire Risk Always Present

Local EMA directors discuss Parkersburg facility fire

Photo by Casey Junkins The Blue Racer Midstream Natrium plant in Marshall County is one of several large facilities throughout the Upper Ohio Valley with volatile natural gas on site. A 2013 blast at the site sent residents of the nearby Kent area scurrying.

WHEELING –After nearly a decade of watching the Marcellus and Utica shale industry grow, emergency management officials know natural gas drilling creates risk of fires, explosions, leaks, traffic accidents and other potential problems.

Also, in an area replete with buildings left behind by the steel, aluminum, glass and chemical industries and others, officials said it is virtually impossible to prevent all accidents. Still, they do not foresee a catastrophic event similar in nature to the massive fire at the former shovel plant near Parkersburg.

“We don’t have a huge facility that is just used for storage like the one in Parkersburg,” Marshall County Emergency Management Director Tom Hart said. “But we do have a lot of old factories and industrial sites up and down the (Ohio River). With any of those facilities, there is always the potential for problems.”

“That was a storage facility with a huge fire load,” Vargo, director of the Ohio County Emergency Management Agency, said of the Parkersburg factory. “Any building with that much combustible material in it can be a hazard.”

Also discussing the matter were Wheeling Fire Department Assistant Chief Paul Harto and Wheeling City Councilman Dave Palmer, who worked as an inspector with the city’s fire department for several years before his retirement.

“I don’t know of any massive storage areas like that in the city,” Harto said. “Most of the old Blaw-Knox and LaBelle plants have been torn down and removed.”

Decades ago, the East Wheeling Blaw-Knox site and the Labelle Cut Nail Plant in South Wheeling provided plenty of manufacturing jobs for local residents, but the buildings eventually fell into decay once the owners closed the facilities. Much of the Blaw-Knox site has seen remediation, while the nail plant has been replaced with the Labelle Greene housing complex.

All agreed that removing an old structure from a site reduces the risk of problems in the area, particularly if that building is going to be left unattended part of the time. However, Palmer said companies leaving a site can result in trouble because they do not always tell officials what they are doing.

“You never know what is left behind when a company goes out of business. You always assume the worst,” Palmer said. “You’ve got buildings where people do not always report what is stored in there.”

Harto mentioned a warehouse on River Road between North Wheeling and Warwood filled with tires.

“We’re aware of it. It is protected with sprinklers,” he said of the warehouse.

Palmer said there are “hazardous materials inside many buildings.”

“There are places of concern, but I’m not sure there is anything like what they’re seeing in Parkersburg,” Palmer added.

Within Wheeling city limits, Vargo said there are some industrial and commercial buildings that present hazards. For example, a hardware store that contains wood, paint and chemicals could create a massive fire under certain conditions.

“It’s all about the contents of the building,” he said. “The Wheeling Fire Department works very hard to make sure these buildings are as safe as they can possibly be.”

Outside the city limits, Vargo said the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s Office inspects buildings at The Highlands. With all structures at the hilltop development being less than 15 years old, they are much more up to date with modern fire and building code regulations than are some of those found in Wheeling, however.

In recent years, Vargo and Hart have spent much of their time preparing for problems associated with the burgeoning oil and natural gas industry. In June 2010, drillers working near Moundsville struck a pocket of methane, leading to an explosion and fire that burned for several days.

In September 2013, a blast at the Blue Racer Midstream processing plant along W.Va. 2 sent residents of the nearby Kent community scrambling for cover.

Just one month later, a pipeline rupture near Valley Grove allowed 6,000 gallons of water and drilling mud to devastate a family’s home, while the pollutants killed some aquatic life upon entering Wheeling Creek.

In January 2015, an ethane pipeline blew up in Brooke County, creating a ball of flames that could be seen for several miles.

Although the accidents have not been as prevalent since then, Hart and Vargo said the risk will increase as the level of drilling, pipelining and processing once again ramps up.

“Right now, we are seeing them return to the pads. They are not building new pads, but they are building additional wells at the pads,” Vargo said.

Hart works in a county featuring not only drilling and fracking, but billions of dollars worth of processing infrastructure at sites operated by Blue Racer, Williams Energy and MarkWest Energy.

“Most of the companies have been very helpful,” he said in training volunteer firefighters how to address issues at industry sites. “But, each incident is different. They’re not all going to be the same.”

Hart said another issue in Marshall County is some are using open fields or old industrial sites as “lay-down yards.” This involves a company potentially leaving dozens of machines at a site, for example.

“We have companies and subcontractors that are storing equipment and material used in the oil and gas industry. Some of the places they’re storing weren’t meant for that,” Hart said.

Overall, Hart said the situation at Parkersburg provides those in West Virginia a chance to learn how to improve in the area of fire and pollution prevention.

“We are following the situation down there closely to see how it turns out. Once the incident concludes, we will probably be able to learn a great deal from it,” Hart said.

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