Top story 2: Warehouse fire leaves a widespread impact

One of the landmark events in the Mid-Ohio Valley during 2017 was the biggest industrial fire in living memory.

The fire ignited 10,000 tons of discarded plastics stored on an 11-acre site near the south bank of the Little Kanawha River, sending up a cloud of smoke and particles that blanketed parts of Parkersburg, Marietta and other nearby communities for more than a week. Schools were closed because of the foul air, and 39 agencies worked nonstop for eight days to bring the fire under control.

The site on Camden Avenue is owned by Intercontinental Export Import, a company within a corporate umbrella that includes 11 or more operations involved in industrial-based collection of plastic refuse for recycling. Previously owned by the Ames Tool Co., the site was cluttered with bales, drums, bags and other containers and loose materials that authorities still haven’t completely inventoried. The material safety data sheet submitted to West Virginia Environmental Protection included more than 500 pages of inventoried content ranging from plastic film to rigid plastic pipe. The agency has said it has no way of verifying the inventory.

The fire began around midnight on Oct. 21 and was declared extinguished Oct. 30. While it burned, a wayward cloud of smoke followed variable winds, sometimes blanketing Parkersburg, other times veering into Marietta or rising straight up.

Wood County schools were closed for the entire week from Oct. 24 through Oct. 28. The cost of fighting the fire for the county was to be reimbursed by the state — $1.4 million.

As the year draws to a close, the cause of the fire still hasn’t been determined. An investigation by the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s Office continues, and agencies are taking a close look at adjacent warehousing operations, some of which are owned by the Naik group of companies.

As of December, two months after the fire was put out, four class action lawsuits had been filed related to the fire, naming SurNaik, the land owner. The first was filed the day after the fire was put out. One names Dupont, a former occupant of the property, which the lawsuit, filed by five individuals and two companies, alleges should have known about the dangerous conditions on the site but continued selling material to the recycler.

Through a misfortune of boundary drawing, the fire was located in an area surrounded by Parkersburg but not part of the city, an isolated hook of land that is part of Lubeck, meaning that rural fire department was the primary responder when the alarm went out.

Lubeck fire chief Mark Stewart said Thursday he hadn’t been to the site in a couple of weeks but said, “As far as I know, it’s pretty much the same as before.”

West Virginia Environmental Protection Agency has approved a clean-up plan for the site, he said, which will have to begin with the construction of dikes around it to prevent runoff into the Little Kanawha River.

“They have a 27-week cleanup plan,” he said.

Stewart, a firefighting veteran who is also an assistant fire marshal for the state, said the only thing in his experience that would be comparable was a fire at the People’s Cartage warehouse not far from the IEI site that occurred in the summer of 1985, and that fire was nowhere near the size of the IEI fire.

“We had 39 departments from two states,” he said. “It was quite taxing on our volunteers, but we had no injuries, and that’s amazing.”

Stewart said his department held briefings following the fire to see what they’d learned from the experience.

“We had many after-action meetings, and we’d learned a lot, we have ideas to make the next one go more smoothly,” he said. “But when you have something that big, you might do it once or twice in a lifetime.”

A task force formed of several departments and agencies has been looking at the district surrounding the Camden Avenue area where the fire occurred, he said.

“There are all kinds of warehouses out there,” he said. “We inspected 25 of them and found them to be in about the same shape (as the IEI property). We’re working with them to improve conditions so it doesn’t happen again.”

Four class action lawsuits have been filed in relation to the fire, and all have been moved to the Southern District of West Virginia federal court.

They are:

¯ 2.17-cv-04386, Callihan et al v. Surnaik Holdings of WV, LLC et al

¯ 2.17-cv-04387, Barker et al v. Naik et al

¯ 2.17-cv-04388, Snider v. Surniak Holdings of WV, LLCt

¯ 2.17-cv-04417, Mohwish et al v Sirnaik, LLC, et al

Motions to dismiss have been filed in the first three by the defendant.

The lawsuits all allege similar acts of negligence by the property owners, with references to prior warnings and citations by fire marshals and the West Virginia EPA. All claim damages to property, health and other forms of distress.

At a glance

Warehouse fire in Parkersburg

¯ Ignited around midnight Oct. 21.

¯ Declared extinguished Oct. 30.

¯ Size: 11 acres.

¯ Stored plastic materials: 10,000 tons.

¯ Number of lawsuits filed: 4.