With the Weaver Fertilizer plant fire in Winston-Salem contained, the threat of explosion gone, and nearby residents returning to their evacuated homes, questions about what went wrong and how to prevent future emergencies like this one have taken center stage. Over the past week, Lisa Sorg has been looking for answers. She's an environmental investigative reporter with NC Policy Watch, and she recently spoke with WFDD's David Ford.

Interview Highlights

On ammonium nitrate:

Ammonium nitrate is often used to manufacture fertilizer. It also is used in explosives, and it's not inherently combustible. However, when it comes into contact with hot materials, such as you know, maybe a flake of metal that's hot, or something else that's on fire, it can then react and become combustible then, but when it does, it's very, very powerful.

On loopholes surrounding ammonium nitrate storage and processing:

Well, first of all, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has very light regulations for ammonium nitrate. It's not regulated as a hazardous substance. If it were, there would be much more stringent regulations in place. Instead, it's a special health hazard, which is this kind of limbo area that has some very indistinct regulations. The important takeaway is that companies that manufacture ammonium nitrate don't have for example, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) doesn't require those buildings to have sprinklers, doesn't require them to be built from non-combustible materials. The reason that's relevant for Weaver is that those buildings didn't have sprinklers, and two of them were made of wood. So that's one. Second, that there's just a lot of secrecy about this chemical. The environmental regulations are much laxer than the public information regulations. I can't find out today — no one, none of your listeners could find out today — all the facilities that have ammonium nitrate in them in North Carolina. You cannot get that information, ostensibly for homeland security reasons.

On Winston Weaver Company's inventory report:

Well, I asked the city and the state for a chemical inventory and an emergency action plan. These are two regulations that actually do apply. And the chemical inventory will give emergency planners some kind of idea of what's in the plant. So, if you get a call, then you'll know from this facility that we have these many tons of this, and that informs the response. According to the State Department of Public Safety, which would be the entity that receives these chemical inventory reports, Weaver did not submit it in 2020. And they have yet to submit their 2021 report. It's due March 1.

On the significance of those omissions:

Well, if you don't provide the chemical inventory report, then emergency planners don't even know whether to require the facility to then take the next step, which is filing an emergency action plan. So that chemical inventory report is the linchpin for everything to go forward. The lack of that information is troubling because we don't know what was in there. I mean, we know it was ammonium nitrate, we now know it was 600 tons, but we don't have an official record. And that's required. That is not optional. That is not like a recommendation. That is actually the law. So that's troubling. You have to say, "Well, why didn't they?" I mean, was it an oversight? Did they forget? How do you forget? You know, this business has been in Winston for 80 years? How do you forget to file your chemical inventory report? It shows that not all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. I think the absence of those reports, but also the absence of a fine for not filing them is important. The other thing is, is that I cannot, or you or anybody cannot request previous chemical inventory reports for Weaver. I asked the state "Okay, you don't have the 2021. Can I get the 2019?" And they said no. Because federal law, homeland security reasons means I can only get the current year. Well, if the current year's isn't available, then I have no way to get any report from Weaver. The 2019 isn't available. I can't have it because it's not the current year. I mean, this is just how mind-boggling these legal loopholes are.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

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