A private environmental contractor is cleaning up after a fire at a Sunnyside fertilizer storage plant last week.
Around 200 tonnes of sulfur were burned in the February 28 fire at Nutrien Ag Solutions, 1101 Midvale Road, releasing polluting sulfur dioxide into the air. Chemicals in adjacent buildings were spared. The site was returned to the company after the fire was extinguished on March 1.
The fire occurred shortly after a load of sulfur was placed in a storage building on the southeast corner of the facility, Sunnyside Fire Chief Anderson said Tuesday. The conveyor belt used to unload the sulfur sounded a dust alarm before employees noticed the smoldering sulfur in one of the building’s bunkers and called the fire department, he said.
Anderson said powdered or pulverized sulfur poses a higher risk of catching fire than sulfur pellets, which he says are coated with a substance that prevents friction.
“It’s normally in that pellet form, so there really shouldn’t be any dust, but we believe that due to shipping some of the pellets have been pulverized or powdered,” Anderson said.
He said firefighters believe the blaze was a mechanical fire, but there’s no way to know for sure because the machinery used to unload the sulfur was damaged by the fire.
“We know it has to do with the unloading process,” Anderson said.
Anderson also said there were strong winds on Feb. 28, which could have affected dust, fire outbreaks, and smoke movement in the area.
Anderson said Nutrien’s adjuster hasn’t been to the site yet, but is expected to arrive this weekend or early next. Nutrien and the insurance company are each bringing in their own fire investigators to examine the site, he said.
A firefighter from West Benton Fire Rescue was injured while responding to the blaze. He was sent to Prosser Memorial Hospital with chemical burns, treated, and discharged.
Some of the chemicals that have caught fire may cause health or environmental hazards. Anderson said the burning sulfur released sulfur dioxide, which he said is an irritant.
The Federal Environmental Protection Agency reports that sulfur dioxide can damage the respiratory system and make it difficult to breathe, especially in children with asthma. High concentrations of sulfur oxides can also harm trees and plants by damaging foliage and decreasing growth, according to the EPA.
Anderson said liquid ammonium sulfate was present in the facility, but he said it did not burn and no anhydrous or gaseous ammonia was reported after the incident.
The liquid ammonium sulfate was leaking and was contained in catch basins, he said.
Evacuation orders for 18 homes and shelter-at-home orders for other residential areas in Sunnyside were lifted on March 1.
Anderson said the evacuations were carried out in accordance with the state Department of Transportation’s emergency response guide and out of an abundance of caution.
“In the absence of knowing exactly what we have and knowing exactly how those components interact with each other and how those components actually interact once they’re on fire, we kind of take the worst of all evils and go with that,” Anderson said. “Fortunately, in this case, it ended up being probably the least of all evils.”
A third-party contractor is on site to clean up fire and fertilizer debris, Nutrien spokesperson Leigh Picchetti said in an email. Anderson identified the contractor as hazardous waste removal and environmental services company US Ecology.
Cleanup after incidents like the Nutrien facility fire can be handled by the state Department of Ecology or a private environmental contractor, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection. ‘ecology. She said the department has already been contacted by the contractor, who will sample hazardous waste and chemicals at the site.
“The goal is to properly dispose of any debris that has arisen from the fire,” she said. “This environmental contracting company will take care of it, and they will probably submit reports to us on how they plan to handle the cleanup.”
Anderson said the contractor has so far found no contaminants outside of the footprint of the destroyed building.
US Ecology did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for Nutrien Picchetti did not immediately respond to a question about contaminants or hazardous materials.
Sunnyside employees returned to work Friday, Picchetti said in an email, and the facility is operational again except for the dry fertilizer shed and liquid fertilizer loading area.
“Fortunately, we have other facilities nearby supplying these products to ensure there is minimal disruption to the delivery of supplies that growers in the region need as spring approaches,” Picchetti said. in the press release.