One year ago, a major fire broke out in Winston-Salem that had the potential for catastrophic damage. The source of the blaze was the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant housing some 600 tons of hazardous material in close proximity to homes and businesses.

To better understand the city’s response and whether this could happen again in the future, WFDD’s David Ford spoke with Northwest Ward Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh. He heads the public works task committee charged with reviewing the fire. It compared safety ordinances and zoning regulations for manufacturers in peer communities throughout North Carolina.

Interview Highlights

On local, state, and federal controls:

We figured out that pretty much everybody maximizes their local control, up to the point of bumping into state and federal controls. The limits to what we can do from a regulatory standpoint are firm and very difficult for us to change to make our local regulations more strict than at the state level. To illustrate, I don't know if you remember when the Outer Banks municipalities outlawed single-use plastic bags. That lasted about six months before the state legislature came in and just sued everybody and said no — you can’t — the state doesn't give you the power to make that call. Fertilizer is dealt with differently at a national level. There are some protections offered to the fertilizer industry at the national level that they're even more difficult to think about getting changed than if it were a state level.

On changes made by the city in the wake of the fire:

Through our zoning regulations, we were able to affect the perimeter screening. And we went with a six-foot-high opaque fence, which is throughout the state, sort of most often used regulation around fencing. We also increased the amount of acreage required in order to do that type of industrial use, within city limits — 25 acres — which allowed us to put setbacks from the property lines, so that an operation like that would not be able to operate within like 400 feet of the property line where, you know, next to residential usage. So, our change related to new operations. What you couple that with is, if I were to want to build a fertilizer plant like Weaver in 2023, I would then be required to meet all of the other safety regulations that they didn't have to meet at the old plant because it was built in [1939]. So sprinklers, the storage methods, all that stuff, if you were doing that from scratch today, you'd be looking at a completely different set of safety requirements than we were able to enforce over the old site.

On Winston Weaver's ability to rebuild on the same site:

Well, they will not be. For one the site doesn't meet the new ordinance. It's not 25 acres, so they cannot go back in there and put the same thing back. The way the zoning laws read, if you're going to rebuild 51% of an older structure, then it automatically is viewed as a new project, and you have to then conform to all the new codes. So, they could not rebuild their operation on that site even if they were bringing the rest of the safety standards up to today's use — sprinklers and all that stuff — because they simply don't have the land to meet the new requirements.

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