Environment appears to be safe after Weaver Fire

Last week, air quality readings were in the “unhealthy” range, per the EPA; this week, they are trending back to normal


Katie Fox

Wait Chapel was blanketed by a smoky fog last week.

Connor McNeely, Editor-in-Chief

As the investigation into the cause of the Weaver fertilizer fire begins, Wake Forest University is continuing to monitor both the quality of its air and water and has announced that classes will resume in person on Monday, Feb. 7. 

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forsyth County Office of Environmental Assistance and Protection (FCEAP) have been constantly monitoring the air quality of Winston-Salem and surrounding areas, including the campus of Wake Forest University. They now forecast good air quality for the coming week.

The EPA’s monitoring began late Tuesday afternoon, when an eight-member team from the EPA Emergency Response Program arrived in Forsyth County and deployed mobile monitoring sites. One of these sites was set up at Alumni Hall.

Dr. Stan Meiburg, director of graduate studies in sustainability at Wake Forest, explained the reasoning behind the location of the testing site.

“The station of greatest relevance to the campus was set up at the Wake Forest University Police Station, which is located in Alumni Hall,” Meiburg wrote to the Old Gold & Black. “It appears to have been right at the boundary of the one-mile radius established to protect against the risk of an explosion, and is as close to the fire location as any spot on campus. From an air quality standpoint, average concentrations [of particulate matter] at that site would be likely to be as high as anywhere on campus.”

During five reported time periods, the monitoring sites recorded six and twelve-hour averages for air quality. The EPA only measured one pollutant, particulate matter (PM 2.5). 

According to the EPA, particulate matter is a term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some of these particles are so small that they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

In a report provided by Barnette, levels of particulate matter on Tuesday night’s six-hour recorded average exceeded the EPA’s recommended action threshold and were designated as “Hazardous”. On Wednesday, the EPA Emergency Response Team monitored air quality for 12 hours beginning at 6 a.m. Once again, levels of PM 2.5 exceeded the EPA’s recommended action threshold and were labeled “Hazardous”. Following these 12 hours, the EPA Emergency Response Team recorded an average for Wednesday night which was designated as “Unhealthy”.

According to the EPA, the recommended action for “Hazardous” levels of PM 2.5 is “closing schools and canceling outdoor events”. The EPA also recommends “closing workplaces and evacuating affected neighborhoods”.

For “Unhealthy” levels of PM 2.5, the EPA recommends “considering closing schools and canceling outdoor events”, and also recommends “sheltering in place and/or evacuation for affected neighborhoods”.

However, Steve Fisenne, the director of Environmental Health and Safety at Wake Forest, explained that these spiked levels of particulate matter were caused by weather events.

“This was when an atmospheric ‘inversion’ occurred, when a warm layer in the atmosphere traps cooler air beneath. As occurred in this case, the inversion usually takes place at night and lingers until sunrise when the air at ground level warms,” Fisenne wrote to the Old Gold & Black. “The increase in particulate matter at this time occurred because the smoke plume from the Weaver Fertilizer plant could not rise into the atmosphere as would normally occur.”

Fisenne went on to emphasize the favorable timing of this event.

“The timing of this inversion meant the greatest part of the plume passed over the north part of campus in the middle of the night,” continued Fisenne. “Fortunately, there are very few residents outdoors at this time.  Indoor air quality would not be affected since the air filtration systems in the buildings would capture any particulate matter.”

Meiburg clarified the EPA standards related to high levels of particulate matter.

“The ambient standards were not intended to account for short-term exposures due to events such as this one, which can produce very high concentrations over periods of time less than 24 hours,” Meiburg wrote. “These concentrations may cause irritation and symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. They are of greater concern for children and people with compromised lung function.”

Additionally, weather events such as wind shifts had a major impact on both the direction and concentration of smoke throughout the city of Winston-Salem. Minor Barnette, director of the FCEAP, explained the reason for the heavy presence of smoke on Wake Forest’s campus during the initial days of the fire.

“The fire started Monday evening and on Tuesday, the wind was coming out of the northeast, pushing the plume towards the southwest for 10 to 12 hours or more,” Barnette said. “And during that time, the Wake Forest campus was in the path of the plume.”

Barnette was optimistic about the wellbeing of Wake Forest’s student population, which is on average, represented by healthy young individuals.

“Healthy college students with no underlying health conditions are considered among the least susceptible populations for negative acute health impacts from short term exposures,” Barnette said.

Barnette did however note that there are risks posed to those with underlying health conditions.

“A person’s risk is determined by the levels of air pollution that they’re exposed to and the duration of that exposure, how long they breathe at elevated levels, their age and their underlying health conditions,” Barnette said. “Particulate matter could trigger an asthma attack in someone that has severe asthma or for someone that has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema. And it does increase the risk of heart attacks for people who already have cardiac disease.”

In a statement related to the decision-making process of the university during this time, Fisenne highlighted the importance of the EPA and County officials.

“In order to protect all people on campus it was important we rely on the expertise of the EPA and County officials. In this case, the EPA officials identified the smoke as an irritant, as opposed to the toxic effects of chemical exposure,” wrote Fisenne. “Throughout the incident, the data showed that none of the chemical byproducts associated with an ammonium nitrate fire were present, giving us confidence that the particulate matter present was from combusted building materials.”

Fisenne also touted the university’s partnership with public health officials when considering how to best advise the student, faculty and staff population.

“In terms of the hazard, as with any inhaled smoke, those with underlying conditions such as asthma would be most affected, which is why we followed public health advice for people to avoid being outside for prolonged periods when smoke was present,” wrote Fisenne. “The higher the concentration, the more likely it would be to affect those without a respiratory issue.”

Throughout the week, the EPA had been recording an upward trend in air quality as the smoke from the fire dissipated. According to an official communication from Wake Forest University, the EPA has reported that current air quality readings on campus indicate no threat to individual health and that the air is safe to breathe. Additionally, it was communicated that their monitoring has not recognized the presence of nitrogen dioxide or ammonia compounds at any time — neither from the outset of the fire nor as its burning slowed.

However, other environmental concerns have been raised alongside the condition of the air in the city of Winston-Salem and surrounding areas. Public health officials have begun monitoring the quality of water in the surrounding creeks of Winston-Salem.

On Thursday, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health issued a water advisory for Muddy Creek due to the runoff from the Weaver Plant fire, caused by rainfall throughout the day.

On Saturday, city officials released a statement warning residents to “stay out of Muddy, Mill and Monarcas creeks downstream from the Winston Weaver Co. fertilizer plant and to keep pets and other animals out of the creeks due to elevated levels of chemicals in the water resulting from the fire at the plant.”

According to FOX 8 News, dead fish were found along the creek from the drain down to where Monarcas Creek meets Mill Creek on Saturday. FOX 8 has also reported that there are no public water wells in the impacted areas.

Silas Creek, which runs south of the Monarcas, Muddy and Mill Creek lines, is being monitored, according to Fisenne. The topography of the region makes an outcome in which Silas Creek is unaffected more likely, as the slope of the impacted creeks runs away from the university.

“As a precautionary measure we started taking some samples from the campus surface waters, so we have a baseline in the off chance we are in any way impacted,” wrote Fisenne.To view full university communication regarding the Weaver Fertilizer fire, visit their website. Additionally, professionals in the FCEAP continue to update their “Triad Air Quality” website, with a daily air quality forecast.