On the evening of January 31, 2022, a fire broke out at the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant located in a business and residential area on Winston-Salem's north side. Thick smoke, noxious fumes, and the threat of a catastrophic explosion from hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate on site caused thousands to evacuate their homes and made national headlines. And now residents are demanding accountability on the zoning laws and regulations that permit facilities that handle large amounts of chemicals and local residents to live and work in close proximity.
Emergency calls began streaming in at about 6:30 p.m. that evening. Soon firefighters arrived on the scene and quickly realized the gravity of the situation: flames two-stories high, and what Fire Chief Trey Mayo described as enough ammonium nitrate on hand to create one of the worst explosions in U.S. history. After initial attempts by firefighters to suppress the blaze proved futile, the decision was made to retreat, contact nearby residents — some 6,000 of them — and urge them to evacuate.
Four days later at a local press conference, a visibly exhausted Mayo stood by that call.
“I have gotten dozens of phone calls, emails, text messages from around the country saying essentially, ‘You're doing the right thing,'” says Mayo. “And I can go to bed and sleep for the rest of my life being confident in the decisions we made this week based on the information and the expertise we had available to us.”
Many near the plant — frightened, confused, and overcome by thick smoke in their homes and apartments — evacuated ahead of the official warnings. Two weeks later at a public meeting, emotions among those most affected were still raw.
Latina resident Connie Trejo was among them. She says for future emergencies there needs to be better outreach into the Latino community.
“It was pitch black with children crying — it was complete chaos,” says Trejo. “Everybody was in shock. I'm talking about police. I'm talking about firefighters. I'm talking about people. They don't know what to do!”
Vanda Thomas and her family live a half mile from the plant and they evacuated that evening. She says she's concerned about the potential long-term physical side effects from inhaling smoke from the fire, as well as its impact on the soil and water.
She asks, “How in the world did we have 600 tons of hazardous material there in a residential area? And who approved it?”
The answer to her question from city officials is that Winston Weaver was there first back in 1939 and other homes and businesses developed around it.
Sabrina Thomas disputes that claim. She was born and raised in the Piney Grove community near the fertilizer plant. Her family's home on Indiana Avenue was built in 1930 — a decade before Winston Weaver opened its doors a few blocks away.
“It should never have happened,” says Thomas. “Weaver fertilizer has been in that community since 1940. They was not there before the homes in Piney Grove was there. Why was they allowed to even be there? Was it an experiment knowing that it's a majority of a Black neighborhood — to be guinea pigs?”
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Planning and Development Director Chris Murphy grew up in Winston-Salem and describes his department as being at the crossroads, balancing the needs of residents like Sabrina Thomas, the business community, and the environment. Scanning an old digitized black and white aerial photograph of Winston Weaver and the surrounding area, he says even with the scattered nearby homesites of the 30s and 40s, there's very little that would have prevented a fertilizer manufacturer from setting up shop here.
“From a zoning standpoint, in 1939 the location where Weaver is — the location where the fire occurred back in January — it was not located within the city,” says Murphy. “It was located within the county, and there was no zoning in the county at the time.”
There was city zoning Murphy says, but the property wasn't annexed into the city until 1964. As for the buildup of hundreds of homes and businesses around the plant since then, even under today's current requirements, companies are not mandated to notify residents of their warehouses' contents. For that information, Murphy suggests prospective property buyers and renters contact his office before signing on the dotted line.
Winston-Salem State University Geography Professor Russell Smith says Weaver's location comes as no surprise.
“The question always comes is, where do these things go?” says Smith. “Due to the power structure, politics, economics, they're often not put in the privileged communities in predominantly white spaces and wealthy spaces. But many times these things get put in communities where their people have less of a voice, less of an opportunity to challenge them and historically been the home for spatial injustices that just kind of get heaped one onto the other.”
Regardless of where a manufacturing plant would locate today, its business owners would encounter stricter ordinances regarding zoning, and building codes that would make a plant like Weaver much safer than it was decades ago: fire suppression requirements — like sprinkler systems — the amount of material and how it would be stored — all more carefully regulated.
Northwest Ward City Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh says soon, those controls may become even tighter in Winston-Salem.
“What I want to know is what are the boundaries of what we can do as a city to prevent something like this from happening again?” says MacIntosh.
He heads the public works committee task force in charge of reviewing the Winston Weaver fire, comparing safety ordinances and zoning regulations that exist for manufacturers in peer communities throughout North Carolina. He says outdated fire safety requirements — no need for sprinklers and allowing wooden storage facilities, like those grandfathered in at Weaver — are ticking time bombs statewide that need to be addressed by the legislature.
“Fertilizer in particular has to be addressed at the federal level, but the grandfathering issue can be dealt with at the state level,” he says. “It can't be dealt with at local. Our delegation knows where the city council stands on it because we've all talked to them and let them know that half of their constituents could have been blown away by this thing and we just can't allow that kind of thing to happen again.”
Charlotte litigation attorney Paul Dickinson says even with tragic ammonium nitrate explosions like the one at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in 2013 that left 15 people dead — and the near tragedy at Winston Weaver — there remains little appetite in Congress to take on the powerful fertilizer lobby.
“The U.S. Chemical Safety Board adopted regulations that raised the standard for safe handling and storage of ammonium nitrate,” says Dickinson. “However, those regulations are unenforceable under federal law. The government didn't bootstrap that with any consequences to companies that violate those higher standards.”
In mid-April Winston-Salem city officials proposed several changes to make sites like Weaver safer. Among the recommendations were requirements for hazardous materials management plans, security walls, and a minimum site size. City Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh says the time to move on zoning is now.
“We can change zoning so that you would need a certain distance between a fertilizer plant — and/or this or that kind of plant — but you would have to be some geographic distance away from any house. So that it would be practically impossible to do it inside the city of Winston-Salem.”
MacIntosh adds that the council will need to study ways of addressing pre-existing businesses, but he says officials can prevent new facilities that handle large amounts of chemicals from being developed in the city moving forward.
Piney Grove resident Sabrina Thomas wants accountability now.
“The city officials have failed us,” she says. “The state has failed us because they allowed Weaver fertilizer to have dangerous, hazardous materials of that magnitude in our community.”
Following the fatal West, Texas, fertilizer explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's report listed several leading causes for the tragedy. Among them: the proximity of the facility to nearby homes. While lessons from that catastrophe may not have been learned, time will tell if those from the Winston Weaver fire will be.