Authorities spoke too soon when they said the ChemCentral fire was safe.

Smoke & Mirrors 

Authorities spoke too soon when they said the ChemCentral fire was safe.

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EPA officials say Dyer's early comments were based on data they collected from the smog indicators. But even the EPA’s final report on the fire, released June 10, indicates the air-monitoring-system sensors "do not measure for specific contaminants" that could have been in the air.

The ASPECT plane made two more voyages around the cloud, once at 8:27 that night and then again at 8:06 a.m. on February 9. After that third flight, the EPA was finally confident that there was nothing dangerous in the air over Kansas City.

Altogether, the plane made 15 passes around the cloud. After the third round of data confirmed the initial findings, the EPA sent the plane home to Texas.

It had been more than 12 hours since Dyer's all-clear announcement. Four hours after the blaze began at 2 p.m., firefighters considered spraying a water-based foam mixture onto the fire. They feared that doing so could cause the chemicals to spread, so they asked for an opinion from federal and state scientists.

Everybody was in agreement: Spraying the fire could cause the chemicals to flow onto neighboring property, into sewers or perhaps straight into the Missouri River. In a report she wrote that night, Mindy McDaniel, an emergency-management specialist with FEMA, indicated that "it would present an environmental hazard to use water on the blaze."

Dyer, speaking to the media that night, cautioned that spraying the plant with water could spread whatever had been kept at the chemical plant. "We are not fighting this fire at all," Dyer said. "The only way to handle this fire is to allow it to burn itself out."

But at 11:20 p.m., Dyer reversed his decision, ordering crews to spray the fire. They quickly unloaded a mixture of 97 percent water and 3 percent foam on the fire. The plant exploded all over again. Flames shot 100 feet into the air. Fireballs rolled into the sky.

Soon, Dyer told his crew to stop. They'd wait until morning to spray again, when they could clearly see what was burning.

Authorities initially agreed that it would be harmful to spray the fire. But now, six months later, they're claiming that the level of toxic damage was negligible.

The night of the fire, authorities — including those at the EPA, the fire department and City Hall — told the media that the water was contained within the plant's property and posed no danger to waterways. But the EPA learned later that the foam mixture ended up flowing directly into Kansas City's Blue River Sewage Treatment Plant.

Lorene Lindsay, manager of Kansas City's Water Services Department laboratory, says plant workers began testing sewer water six hours after the start of the ChemCentral fire and continued for three days afterward. But because the Blue River plant handles 70 million gallons a day, it's unlikely the tests would have shown whether the diluted fire runoff contained toxins.

The foam mixture, after it was treated at the plant, then joined the rest of the treated sewage as it dumped into the Missouri River.

Dyer and EPA officials say the water presented no danger. The EPA's Ken Buchholz, the branch chief of the EPA's Superfund Division, says any contaminated water would have dissipated in the vastness of the sewers. Buchholz claims, "Really, the sewer system is the best place for it."

But because nobody's sure what was in the runoff, it's unclear whether the Blue River plant would've filtered it out. Some chemicals kept at ChemCentral may have gone undetected through the treatment system.

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