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FD Seeks Answers to Dangers Faced in Industrial Blaze

Erie Times-News

May 18, 2011

While investigators continue to search for the cause of a fire that heavily damaged a Harborcreek Township biofuels plant over the weekend, firefighters who answered the call say they want to know what hazards they came in contact with while dousing the flames.

Fairfield Hose Co. Fire Chief Jim Hawryliw said he will meet with other fire chiefs, county and local officials, and agency representatives tonight at 7 at his department’s station on East Lake Road to discuss the Saturday night fire at 4680 Iroquois Ave.

“I want to go over all of the risks and concerns of all the chemicals in there, to make sure the equipment is safe,” Hawryliw said Tuesday afternoon. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

The 56,000-square-foot plant, owned by Lee Akerly, is home to American Biodiesel Energy Inc. and North American Powder Coatings. Firefighters who were called to the building at 8:18 p.m. Saturday initially fought the fire from outside because of uncertainty about what was stored inside, fire officials said.

Three firefighters who responded Saturday night suffered injuries, including one who received a chemical burn to the foot, officials said.

Fire crews have returned to the plant several times since Saturday night, including three times Monday, to put out hot spots that flared up.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection toured the site Monday and found no clear evidence of any hazardous materials creating an environmental impact, an agency spokeswoman said afterward.

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Several other firefighters have been sent to receive medical attention for “minor issues,” and a lot of firefighting equipment has been damaged, Hawryliw said Tuesday.

“We’re still trying to determine the chemicals that were in the fire,” he said. “Whatever chemicals were in there is all over our equipment. We had a lot of equipment damaged — hoses, fire gear — and he didn’t have insurance. That poses a big concern.”

Akerly could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Erie County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Robinson said federal and state laws require facilities to report the chemicals they use and store to the local emergency planning committee. If those substances are considered extremely hazardous, a facility must have a plan in place that emergency responders can use to take appropriate measures when responding to an incident, Robinson said.

Erie County has no record of American Biodiesel Energy Inc. or North American Powder Coatings having such plans, Robinson said.

“We’re not even sure (Akerly) needed a plan,” he said. “We really don’t know what was really in there. We know what he told us and what we saw.”

The county’s Hazardous Materials Response Team went to the fire scene Saturday and was given “a rather nice, detailed drawing of where stuff is,” Robinson said. But one fire official showed the team a completely different drawing, he said.

“(Akerly) did give us a list of chemicals in there. But I know at least one chemical that the team found was not on there, probably one of the nastier chemicals on-site,” Robinson said.

The DEP spokeswoman said Monday that agency representatives found tanks with hazardous substances on-site at 4680 Iroquois Ave., but the tanks were well-insulated and were not compromised by the fire.

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