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Huge Workplace Fire at Oil Company Creates Possibility of Dangerous Smoke Inhalation for Miles

In Pike Township, Ohio, last week, firefighters from dozens of departments needed six hours to get control of a massive fire at an oil company. The damage from the fire, smoke, and hazardous materials that leaked will require an extensive environmental cleanup in the area.

More than 50 agencies responded to the workplace fire. The blaze produced flames that shot 200 feet into the air, and black smoke could be seen several counties away. The clouds of smoke could even be seen on weather radar. The oil company supplies diesel fuel, heating oil, gasoline, racing fuel, bio-diesels and lubricants.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials at the scene determined that oil spilled into a tributary of Donnels Creek, which feeds into Mad River. Officials used vacuum equipment and other techniques to remove environmental contaminants. “We pushed hard to protect the environment,” said a local fire chief. “We should have things back to normal in a couple days.”

Public and private hazardous materials teams contained petroleum-based contaminants to no more than a quarter mile downstream, said another fire chief who is a member of the county’s hazardous materials team.

Firefighters ramped up the use of water and foam to quench the flames after the fire spread throughout the entire facility. One firefighter was treated for a minor leg injury, and all 15 employees at the company’s plant were accounted for. Homes in the surrounding area had minimal to no damage.

The fire started about 11 a.m. as the oil company’s crews loaded a tanker truck. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but fire officials believe it ignited while workers transferred a fluid from one tank to another. It was not immediately known what type of fluid was being transferred.

After about 45 minutes, firefighters ordered first responders and company employees to get back as the blaze spread. Electric transformers exploded and electric lines fell on the scene a short time later, forcing firefighters back even more. And as the fire spread, the building began to collapse.

Before the fire spread, oil company employees were able to salvage all computer servers and some files. But once the flames began advancing and the possibility of severe burns and smoke inhalation became higher, people were told to evacuate.

At the time of the fire, the company said it only had lubricants at the site. However, a fire chief said the fire involved several petroleum products and fuel oil, including 55 gallon drums of petroleum product. There might be legal liability on the part of the company if any employees or local residents were injured in this incident, or afterwards as a result of environmental contamination.

Some oil was found in the stream near the facility. One official said that this tributary was “running orange-red.” Veolia Environmental Services of Dayton, Ohio had booms in the tributary to try to stop the flow of the oil.

Michelle Simmons, environmental manager for the Dayton Water Department, said her department recommended that the Mad River intakes be closed overnight as a precaution, even though the Ohio EPA does not expect any impact to the Mad River surface water from runoff. Any possible runoff will have passed the water supply intakes by morning, she said.

The city of Springfield’s water well taps an aquifer along Mad River. It also has a ridge line along it, creating almost a confined pond that provides more protection. Fortunately, “we are upstream of their problem,” said one city official.

Runoff of contaminated surface water is a common concern in fighting fires near hazardous materials. “When you knock down a fire of any size, you’re going to have the water you use picking up contaminants,” said one fire chief.

The Ohio EPA likely will monitor the stream and other water sources for the foreseeable future. Residents near the fire have well water, and several horse farms in the area rely on the stream, so they need to monitor the quality of their water.

This chemical fire posed numerous risks. One fire chief said that firefighters have to be aware of numerous risks when fighting a fire of this magnitude. The chemicals can seep into the clothes and skin of first responders, contaminate the air, and when mixed with water can create a slurry that will create an environmental hazard as it seeps into streams and waterways. Some surrounding homes were evacuated and people with farm animals had been advised to keep them away.

Having enough water to keep flames under control was a challenge. Without hydrants, fire crews trucked water into the site, including from schools and a local water tower. Firefighters used 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water a minute, said a fire chief.

Firefighters handling the blaze went to Springfield’s distribution district and filled up tankers with water from the city’s hydrants. As crews worked to keep a steady supply of water on hand, officials remained concerned about the potential for explosions. There were many large explosions during the first several hours of the fire — a large boom followed by a ball of flame and a heat wave that spread across the area. Soot and ash rained down cross the scene, raising the possibility of dangerous smoke inhalation.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office advised people in the immediate area to close their windows and turn off air conditioning. The advisory was issued about 1 p.m. and lifted about 6 p.m.

Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said his agency worked closely with incident commanders on the scene, as well as the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency. Brian Huxtable, of the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, advised people to avoid the smoke if possible but said as far as he knows, it’s not a serious inhalation hazard if people stay far enough away. “It may cause coughing… Just try to avoid going outside in it.” People with prior breathing problems like asthma would probably be affected most, he said.

The two air pollution monitors in Clark County picked up any smoke by mid-afternoon, probably due to their placement in relation to the smoke plume. Officials closed ventilation systems at local schools anyway.

Kelly Phares lives across from the scene of the fire, and said that “I heard some pops and literally my house shook,” she said. “I’m concerned that something flammable could fly over, but we don’t have any trees or anything (that would catch fire).” She said black debris from the fire is in her yard.

“I just happened to look outside and I thought it was getting cloudy,” she said. “But then I saw (the fire) before the fire trucks got here. It’s pretty scary.”

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injuries suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.