A recent study claims local officials and environmental agencies downplayed hazardous air conditions during the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant fire — and more should have been done to alert the public. Some of the highest levels of fine particulate matter during the incident were measured at Wake Forest University.
In the first days of the fire at the Winston Weaver Company, the focus was on the amount of ammonium nitrate at the site and on preventing an explosion. Emergency officials let the fire burn to keep first responders out of harm's way. A heavy blanket of smoke could be seen throughout the city as the smoldering fire released a mix of pollutants into the air.
The Environmental Protection Agency set up monitors around the perimeter of the fire several hours after it began. During a press conference on February 2, 2022, Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo touched on air quality and made recommendations that included avoiding exercising outside.
“The products of combustion we still classify those generally as just irritants. We would expect people to be exposed to them,” said Mayo.
But the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League says air quality was much worse than what was shared with the public.
The report looks at raw data from the EPA monitors. One of them was at Wake Forest University. On February 2, it showed levels of PM 2.5 or fine particulate 18 times higher than what the agency considers hazardous.
Wake Forest issued several messages to the campus community during the incident. In an alert sent on February 2, the university said “the EPA reports that air quality readings on and near campus indicate that the air poses no threat to individual health and is safe to breathe.” University officials say they followed protocol and relied on EPA, city, and county expertise. Wake also canceled classes for the remainder of the week.
Stan Meiburg is a former EPA official who now works for Wake Forest. He says incidents like this point out the importance of emergency response planning.
"There's probably opportunities to improve communication between the immediate emergency management officials and the fire department and the local, and state, and federal air quality information and to get a consistent message out to the public, and I'm sure that is something that will be looked at in any after-action reviews of this incident,” says Meiburg.
More than 6,000 people were evacuated during the chemical fire that broke out at the Winston Weaver plant on January 31. The cause of the incident is still unclear.
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Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the exact date of the PM 2.5 reading.