Clean Harbors chemical fire highlights environmental, health concerns in Fore River Basin
BRAINTREE — A recent Clean Harbors facility fire that saw tractor-trailers full of chemicals burn and residents told to stay inside has reopened questions about the dangers of industries along the basin of the Fore River and the impacts they may have on nearby neighbors in Braintree, Weymouth and Quincy.
Braintree Town Council President Meredith Boericke said Mayor Charles Kokoros, Fire Chief James O'Brien and a Clean Harbors representative will appear at next council's Tuesday meeting to discuss the incident.
Boericke said the purpose of the meeting is to "get a better understanding of what occurred and how it can be avoided in the future. The council is also looking forward to touring the site and getting a firsthand understanding for what's on the ground."
"The council will be taking public comments as well," Boericke said. "The council will be collecting all comments and concerns and getting answers that will be presented at a future meeting."
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The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28 in the Cahill Auditorium of Braintree Town Hall, 1 John F. Kennedy Memorial Drive.
Kokoros said he plans to work with company and government officials to determine what caused the fire and "what can we do in the future to prevent something like that from happening again."
Trucks full of chemicals burn along the Fore River in Braintree
The fire broke out just after 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, destroying several trailers containing chemicals at the facility off of Quincy Avenue, next to the former Fore River Shipyard. Along with firefighters from Braintree, Quincy, Weymouth, Randolph and Holbrook, the state Department of Fire Services, state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Coast Guard were among the agencies that responded.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but Clean Harbors officials said in a statement on Friday that preliminary indicators suggest materials in one of the trailers "self-reacted."
"The trailers contained a mixture of paints, epoxy, oil filters, solvents and similar waste materials," the company said.
"We were prepared to do a full scale evacuation if we had to."
Braintree Mayor Charles Kokoros
Water used to extinguish the fire was contained on site and was to be removed over the weekend, the company said. Containment equipment was also place in the Fore River adjacent to the facility, although the company said there is no evidence of water contamination. No injuries were reported at the fire scene.
The Clean Harbors location serves as "the largest treatment storage and disposal facility in New England," according to the company's website. "The facility receives, stores, treats and transfers a variety of waste streams. The treatment methods utilized at this facility reduce the volume and/or toxicity of waste materials or make it suitable for further treatment reuse, or disposal."
A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection said operations at Clean Harbors have stopped and can't resume until authorities confirm that the facility is in compliance with specific regulatory requirements.
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'We were prepared to do a full scale evacuation'
Kokoros was at the scene of the fire, along with representatives of the health and building departments. He said air testing took place not just at the scene, but in nearby neighborhoods, and "were not problematic."
If the tests showed air quality problems, "we were prepared to do a full scale evacuation if we had to," Kokoros said.
Across the river in Weymouth, District 1 Town Councilor Pascale Burga said the wind was blowing toward the Fore River, so the Quincy and Weymouth neighborhoods in that direction took the brunt of the resulting smoke and odor. Burga, who represents North Weymouth, said the air monitors in the basin show there was a spike in toxins in the air between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. that later dissipated.
Burga said it doesn't appear there are any lingering risks, but the incident shows the importance of having a safety plan for the Fore River Basin, especially now that the natural gas compressor station is online in a heavily industrial area.
"We need a coalition, and it's something (Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station) has been shouting from the roof tops," she said. "The risk is truly there, and this time firefighters were able to prevent a catastrophe, but if fuel had exploded, it would have been a lot worse."
'Air pollution does not adhere to town boundaries'
On social media and in calls and texts to town council members, some Braintree residents complained they were not notified of the fire. The town posted to Facebook Thursday night advising residents to stay inside with the windows closed, but did not send out a robocall with a recording notifying residents of the situation.
Kokoros said he decided not to do a robocall based on the air quality results he had and the time of night when many residents would be asleep.
Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund said he wasn't notified of the fire until the following day because it was in Braintree. He said fire officials have been instructed to notify the administration about any incident in the basin going forward.
“We want to have some discussions about what we learned and what we should do differently moving forward,” he said.
No notices were sent to residents in Quincy or Weymouth who are, in some cases, closer to Clean Harbors than Braintree neighborhoods, the environmental group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station said in a statement.
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"Air pollution does not adhere to town boundaries − residents of neighboring towns should have been alerted of this event so that they could take the proper precautions," the group said.
Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station has been calling for Weymouth, Braintree and Quincy to prepare plans for emergencies at any of the industrial facilities along the Fore River, including the natural gas compressor station in North Weymouth and Clean Harbors.
"We, in our environmental justice neighborhoods, breathe the toxins from the compressor, Clean Harbors, the MWRA fertilizer pelletizing plant, Twin Rivers, Calpine and BELD every single day," the group said. "We are left to our own devices on how to escape should there be an emergency."
Fire points to need for plan along industrial Fore River
Braintree District 3 Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio said she could see the fire from her Glenrose Avenue home. She has been outspoken on environmental issues along the Fore River, from the venting of natural gas from the compressor station to the discharge of sewage overflows into the waterway. She also wants to see an evacuation plan for the area.
She said the wind was shifting during the night and the smoke was changing color from white to gray.
"Saying everyone is safe without knowing what they were breathing as they fought this fire or woke up (Friday) morning is premature," Maglio said. "There is not a lot of trust between the community and officials who license these polluters to threaten our air, water, ground, pets and families."
Patrick Kinney, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, said it's hard to determine what the impact of the fire could be without more data, such as the concentrations of chemicals people were exposed to and the period of time they were exposed.
"My greatest concern would be for firefighters and other emergency responders who might have been exposed to high concentrations of smoke depending on whether they were using adequate respirators," he said.
Maglio said she would like to see state officials held accountable for the environmental damage brought by industry in the Fore River Basin.
"These industries are basically ravaging this land," Maglio said.
During a site inspection of the Braintree Clean Harbors facility in June 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency found nearly 30 violations, including inadequate waste characterization, the failure to properly maintain its hazardous waste tanks, inadequate secondary containment and improper storage of incompatible wastes.
Clean Harbors came into compliance with the 2007 order soon after it was issued and agreed to implement an enhanced waste analysis plan and install a vapor collection system for its tanks.
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Clean Harbors fire raises concerns about industrial Fore River Basin