No Big Red Fire Trucks But We Still Fight Fires

By Jeff Bechtel

EPA is known for its environmental monitoring efforts through air, water and soil sampling. Often those sampling efforts lead to additional actions to protect human health and the environment. My response team was recently called to don fire-fighting gear because of such monitoring.

In May 2012, a fire broke out at the Hillcrest Industries recycling facility in Attica, NY, and the smell of burning plastic was noticeable throughout the town. State and local officials were overseeing the fire-fighting efforts of a smoldering 40-foot high pile of plastic and organic waste. Concerns over air quality prompted my team to be called in to monitor the surrounding area. We used an air monitoring system called “VIPER” that lets anyone, including the public, view air monitoring results in real time.

On September 13, we identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can lead to short and long term health problems, in the immediate area of the smoldering pile. After we learned about the VOCs, we provided information to the community about the potential dangers of the burning debris, but this was only the beginning of our response efforts.

After four months of unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire, we were asked to step in and take over the fire-fighting efforts. We determined the best course of action was to dismantle the waste pile. A team from Hillcrest began excavating the debris pile under our supervision, and they started from the side of the pile with the lowest temperatures and worked inward. My team continued to monitor the air throughout the excavation and fire-fighting process, and these efforts were critical in providing area residents with the health and safety information they needed. After a couple of weeks of work, the fire was officially extinguished on October 14, 2012, 10 days ahead of schedule. Over a two week period, we moved nearly 50,000 cubic yards of material to make the fire-fighting easier.

After the fire was extinguished, we determined that air quality was back to normal and continued to work with Hillcrest Industries to resize the piles to avoid re-ignition. The company also developed a plan to better protect the surrounding community by fostering better management of the site to avoid future fires.

About the author:  Jeff Bechtel is an 18-year veteran of EPA, currently serving as an On-Scene Coordinator in Emergency Response.