Lack of chemical storage reporting played role in Harrisburg fir - abc27 WHTM

Lack of chemical storage reporting played role in Harrisburg fire

Posted: Updated:

A warehouse fire Monday in Harrisburg illuminates a lack of consistent chemical reporting to authorities. Firefighters were unaware of what chemicals were inside burning building.

Smoke was so thick, only flickering lights from emergency vehicles were visible. The large plume of black smoke could be seen for miles. During an update Monday night, acting Fire Chief Brian Enterline said crews were battling a massive chemical fire.

"We had a lot of gasoline, a lot of oil, a lot of chemicals and things like that involved in the fire," he said.

On Tuesday, once the smoke cleared, the damage could be seen - including three 275 gallon above-ground fuel storage tanks. Enterline said a spark caused vapors around those tanks to ignite, and caused the blaze to burn for hours.

In cases such as chemical fires, businesses that use chemicals in any capacity are required by the state Department of Labor and Industry to provide a material safety data sheet. Enterline said his crews were not provided with such a list from Hebron, Inc.

"Quite frankly, we didn't know what we were fighting when we got here,” he said. “We knew there was vehicles in involved. We knew there were vehicles stored involved, and we knew there were chemicals, but we didn't know what those chemicals were."

What's the issue? Explosions could occur when water is mixed with certain chemicals. Hebron, Inc., a car parts recycling center, had automotive fuels on hand. The company, which ships car parts around the world, had stacks of vehicles on its property. The car graveyard acted more like an outdoor part inventory warehouse.

Enterline said many of the explosions were caused by the cars' fuel tanks.

Dauphin County officials notified PEMA and the state Department of Environmental Protection around 7:30 Monday night. DEP workers arrived to contain any hazardous materials runoff into the water system from the fire hoses. According to a DEP spokesperson, hazmat materials were contained and an air quality check came back clear.

A DEP spokesperson said there were no violations on record for Hebron, Inc. because they are exempt from permits and jurisdiction due to fuel storage. The law states any non-commercial use of fuel under 1,100 gallons are exempt from permits. Hebron, Inc. had three 275-gallon tanks, although some have questioned why their fuel use is deemed non-commercial.

City Codes Director Dave Patton said Hebron, Inc. did not have any violations in the past year. In 2012, the city cited Hebron, Inc. for an $11,000 roof repair, but the records of the warehouse's last inspection were not available or known. Patton said hazardous materials fall under the fire prevention code.

City councilwoman Sandra Reid said proper steps need to be taken to prevent slips in the system.

"There may have been some things missed," Reid said. "We want to make sure we have the amount of people to do the jobs, especially when it comes to inspection and enforcement to protect public safety.”

Reid and other council members decided to eliminate Mayor Eric Papenfuse's proposal for an Office of Sustainability in the 2014 budget. Such an office would be in charge in making sure businesses are compliant with environmental codes and laws, as well as educating business owners on proper safety procedures.

Although the question has been raised, Enterline and Reid said the recently closed and nearby Paxton Fire House would not have had an impact on Monday's fire, if operational.

Enterline said 15 city firefighters were on-scene using seven city trucks. The three-alarm fire was called in just before 6, which brought 64 fire crews from surrounding departments.

Although the fire at Hebron, Inc. was masterfully handled by a strong reaction, the situation provides a look into the systemic issues involving chemical-using businesses in Harrisburg. While the city's plate is no doubt full, the overarching necessities are rarely seen until something erupts such as Monday night's fire, as one vocal citizen explained.

Enterline, who acted as a captain under the Thompson administration, was asked if in years past if businesses were held accountable when it came to environmental and chemical issues.

He paused then smiled before he said: "I think we can say that a lot of things in the city go unreported properly. Some of that is a lack of communications on our part over the last several years, some of that is the lack of the ability of the business owners of all the laws and standards they need to meet."

Powered by WorldNow