Closings blamed on fouled air

PARKERSBURG — Wood County Schools, including its district office, is closed for a second day today due to smoke from the fire at the former Ames factory.

Officials announced the decision to close around 5 p.m. Monday. Throughout

the day, businesses and agencies in downtown Parkersburg closed due to concerns over air quality, and some area colleges and private schools, including Parkersburg Catholic schools, were closed Monday.

The former Ames plant in south Parkersburg caught fire early Saturday morning and sent a massive plume of black smoke into the air which could be seen for miles. Officials say the building could continue to burn throughout the week as firefighters sift through debris and seek to douse hot spots.

Officials say recent rains could force the smoke lower, causing more respiratory issues, and officials have not been able to clearly identify the materials stored at the site.

Wood County Schools Superintendent John Flint said the decision to close schools today was reached after a meeting Monday afternoon with state and local officials.

“They said the atmospheric conditions would be very similar, so the smoke would continue to be lower and potentially be an issue,” he said. “We’re just trying to err on the side of caution.”

Flint said the closure would not affect tonight’s Wood County Board of Education meeting, which begins at 6:30 at the district’s 13th and Plum streets offices in Parkersburg.

Several athletic events, including a football game at Stadium Field between Williamstown High School and Parkersburg Catholic High School, were canceled Monday evening, and officials announced a planned soccer tournament for tonight at Stadium Field has been rescheduled for Wednesday.

Throughout the morning Monday, area courts and public and private agencies in downtown Parkersburg announced they would allow staff to leave early or closed offices altogether due to air quality concerns.

County agencies began closing mid-morning on Monday, including Wood County Magistrate and Circuit courts. The Wood County Public Defenders Office closing shortly after.

Highmark also closed Monday, citing air quality concerns.

“Given the breadth of the fire and subsequent air quality, Highmark West Virginia felt that it was in the best interest of our employees to close today,” said spokeswoman Kristy Cramlet. “We have also ensured no interruption of service to our customers, with calls being channeled to our other locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.”

The Bureau of Fiscal Service office closed at noon Monday, and several banks closed their downtown branches. The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department also closed its offices, and numerous private businesses downtown sent employees home early or announced they would be closed Monday.

Joyce Harris, a Bureau of Fiscal Service spokeswoman, said offices will be closed again today.

“The safety of our employees is of the utmost importance to us,” she said.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Transit Authority announced it would offer free rides to the elderly and those with respiratory issues who were seeking to leave the area.

American National University announced it would be closed Monday, and West Virginia University at Parkersburg had already canceled morning classes.

Nearby Belpre City Schools in Ohio kept its facilities open Monday, though Superintendent Tony Dunn called it a “difficult decision” and said he was keeping in close contact with emergency officials on both sides of the river.

Belpre City Schools canceled its classes for today because of the industrial fire in Parkersburg.

“It’s like a snow day on an environmental level,” Dunn said. “When it comes down to it, you just have to make the best decision you can.”

Dunn said representatives of Ohio EPA and the Belpre Fire Department took air samples at the district’s central office in the old Stone Elementary building and in and around Belpre Elementary School on Monday morning. Those tests showed air quality within acceptable levels, he said.

Dunn said the smoke from the Ames plant could be smelled in Belpre on Monday morning and some inner rooms of schools smelled of smoke due to air intakes. Those intakes were turned off temporarily until the air cleared, he said.

Even so, “we have had a lot of parents come and get their kids (Monday) morning, especially at the high school,” he said. “Those students are more able to stay at home by themselves.”

Dunn said officials would continue to monitor the situation, as rains were expected to drive the smoke closer to the ground and wind patterns could move the cloud to different areas.