Ashley Way left her Parkersburg, West Virginia, home to run some errands in the late morning on Saturday, October 21, as dense, black clouds of smoke concealed the sky. “The air was pungent and kind of syrupy. It had a taste to it and I knew then that something was suspect, and that this wasn’t just an abandoned property on fire,” she said.
When she returned a couple of hours later, ash was falling around her property.
“That’s the moment I became concerned and suspicious,” she said.
The former Ames Tool Plant was on fire. The 420,000-foot warehouse, used most recently for storing mounds of plastic for recycling, would burn for over a week, with firefighters still extinguishing “hot spots” as late as Sunday, October 29.
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Two days after the fire started, Way, a nonprofit director, went in to work for 20 minutes and then went home with a migraine unlike anything she had ever experienced.
“The back of my eyeballs hurt with some kind of pressure,” she said. “The air quality was so poor it was hard to catch a breath. The odor was horrific.”
By that Wednesday morning, she woke with another headache and extreme nausea, while her wife had developed a sore throat. Both were unusually lethargic.
“Even though we had sealed the cracks in our older home, and had not been running the AC or heat, the odor was still seeping in. Our children were seemingly fine with no visible illnesses, but they’re 16 months old so they can’t obviously communicate. I wasn’t going to take any chance with them. We left that day,” Way said.
‘We Left on Day Five and There Were Still No Answers’
The warehouse in south Parkersburg—owned by Intercontinental Import Export, Inc., also known as IEI Plastics— was full of plastic recycling, had been quickly engulfed in flames. Multiple explosions were reported. Residents from miles around watched the dark skies and smelled the arid air. Many streets around the warehouse were closed. But two weeks later, the cause of the fire still remains unknown.
What’s most concerning for Way, and thousands of other residents in the affected area, is: What exactly burned? What fell from the sky and coated yards and roofs and cars? And what may have found its way into the water?
IEI Plastics provided an outdated list of materials stored in the warehouse at one time, which may have included titanium dioxide, formaldehyde, Teflon, nylon, PVC, carbon black, fiberglass, and styrene. But everything inside the building burned and is now completely unrecognizable.
According to local officials, significant testing of the materials at the site needed to wait until after a 36- to 48-hour cool-down phase once the fire was completely extinguished, which didn’t happen until around noon on Sunday, October 29. In an interview with the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, Eric Fitch, director of Environmental Science at nearby Marietta College in Ohio, said, “(T)hey’ll have to characterize it [what is left at the site] and clean it up. This is not going to be a quick, easy, or inexpensive process.”
An official report has yet to be released.
Wood County Unified Command urged residents to avoid exposure to particles (also known as “fallout material”) in the air, despite initial tests reporting acceptable air quality. “(P)articulates, especially fine particulates, can be dangerous in and of themselves, or as vehicles for transmission of other chemicals and byproducts,” Fitch said.
Women and children are especially at risk. “[M]aternal exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is associated with adverse birth outcomes,” including premature birth and low birth weight, according to a Johns Hopkins University study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives. As mounting scientific evidence reveals, “Preconception and prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals are of particular import because they may have a profound and lasting impact on health across the life course.” Children “are more vulnerable … because exposures to environmental contaminants create greater risks for children’s developing bodies and cognitive functions,” according to a 2017 Bulletin of the World Health Organization, which also estimated “modifiable environmental risk factors cause about 1.7 million deaths in children younger than five years and 12.6 million total deaths every year.”
In Parkersburg, schools were closed for days and workplaces sent employees home. On Monday, October 23, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) declared a state of emergency for Wood County, saying, “I don’t have the knowledge or the expertise within me to know what the environmental impact could be to our citizens yet. And we’re trying to source all the professional advice we can source, and do the right things for our people.”
Way, who attended some of the press conferences about the fire early on, remained uneasy. “It’s not that I distrusted the officials relaying the information, I was just plainly aware that there was very little information to relay. I do believe they provided the public with everything they knew. It just wasn’t enough,” she said.
It was the “fear of the unknown” that eventually caused Way and her wife to take their twin infants approximately 2 hours north to Columbus, Ohio.
“We left on day five and there were still no answers as to what was burning,” she said. “Officials were saying it was ‘non-toxic,’ but then admitted they didn’t have a clue.”
For residents, it’s not just the air quality that has become an immediate issue. As residue from the fire washes downstream, West Virginia American Water (WVAW) is closely monitoring water quality at its Huntington plant on the Ohio River, which has an intake approximately 124 miles downstream from the fire.
Parkersburg’s WVU Medicine Camden Clark Medical Center has seen about 100 patients for smoke-related treatment at its ER, according to Roger Lockhart, director of marketing and public affairs. “We responded quickly,” he said, “making sure our emergency response team was ready. We handed out masks, made sure to offer free (pulmonary function test) screenings for first responders and the public. There were a number of employers that closed for a couple of days downtown. We didn’t close obviously—we were all hands on deck.”
According to Lockhart, also a resident of the area, the air inside the medical center has been odorless. But outside the hospital, just a few short miles away from the site of the fire, the conditions fluctuated.
“It depends on the day, the weather, the wind—that’s what the entire Mid-Ohio Valley is experiencing,” Lockhart said. “But, the sun is out and it’s pretty today.”
‘What Are We Doing to Prevent This From Happening Again?’
These kinds of events—and these concerns—are not new for longtime residents. Katie Craddock, a pharmacist, and her adult daughter Rachel live across the river from the warehouse and have chosen to stay, but are avoiding going outside as much as possible. Craddock gave up her morning walks as the air smelled like “burning tires.”
The Craddocks have experienced this kind of manufacturing industry disaster before. They were affected by the DuPont chemical spill more than a decade ago when perfluorooctanoic acid (C8) contaminated the Ohio River. They were not in any of the lawsuits that DuPont settled in court earlier this year for more than $670 million, but they were part of an ongoing study on the health effects.
Even before that, Katie remembers yet another industry event, when an explosion from an adverse chemical reaction caused a fire at the Belpre Shell plant in 1994.
“It’s part of living here for sure,” Katie said.
“We’re in a valley and by a river, and it all kind of collects here,” said Rachel, a 2014 graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, who returned home to Ohio this summer. “I’ve heard it called ‘Chemical Valley,’ and ‘Cancer Valley.’”
For Katie and Rachel Craddock, for Way and her family, and for many other residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley who have used bottled water as their main drinking source for a long time, there are always anxieties about the water. They all worry about the air. But Way also worries about the first responders who have been exposed to unknown chemicals, fighting the blaze at the plant for days. And she has concerns about the missing wildlife—noting that she has seen very few birds since the fire broke out.
“But, I’ll tell you what has me up every night,” Way said, “What are we doing to prevent this from happening again?”
Approximately 2,500 households in the Parkersburg and Vienna, West Virginia, and Marietta, Ohio metro area depend on income from manufacturing. “It’s a really complicated issue because jobs at these plants are so many people’s livelihoods, so trying to address the issue can seem like a personal threat on their jobs,” Rachel Craddock said.
With close to 1 out of every 5 West Virginians financially struggling to meet basic needs—the state had a poverty rate of 17.9 percent in 2016 and a child poverty rate of 24.6 percent the year before—for many West Virginians, the price of bottled water becomes easier to swallow than the price of lost industry.
“We should have some experts on this in our area. We are surrounded by all these plants and toxic things, so you’d think we’d have something in place,” Craddock said, “but we don’t.”