BELFAST, Maine — Firefighters are still pouring water on the wreckage of a huge charred industrial structure a day after the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in Belfast burst into flames.
All this water, plus chemicals and other substances in buildings, doesn’t go very far before it becomes runoff from the Passagassawakeag River and Belfast Bay. Chemicals from factories are also scattered into the air.
This has some in the community skeptical about the possibility of water and air pollution following the fires.
John Tipping, who conducts water analysis through his Belfast company Lotic Inc., plans to head to the city’s waterfront on Friday to collect some water samples and begin testing to see what, if any, is happening in the bay.
“What we’ve been thinking about is what the dilution is, what’s actually going into the port, what chemicals are there, and how long does it last,” said the biologist, Belfast Bay Watershed Alliance board member.
Maine Department of Environmental Conservation Deputy Administrator David Mador said Friday that department crews placed oil booms, or temporary containment barriers, on the edges of parking lots to absorb and contain oil from the fire scene. They also used a boat to monitor runoff from the facility, while firefighters put the maximum amount of water on the fire.
“The oily sheen of the parking lot is negligible but cannot be restored,” he said in an email.
The Maine DEP is ready to use a stiff arm if needed, Madore said.
He said the department was working with Belfast Fire Service to understand whether chemical fire retardants were used to fight the fire.
“It has not been confirmed for use,” he said.
But the main chemicals Penobscot McCrum is focusing on are anhydrous ammonia and sulphuric acid used in the company’s wastewater treatment plant, a freestanding building that survived the fire unscathed. Ammonia is a corrosive gas and can be deadly. There are an estimated 12,000 pounds in the plant, according to Waldo County Emergency Medical Services Administrator Dale Rowley.
Madore said the ammonia is being handled properly.
“Ammonia, which is used as a refrigerant, is being released slowly, while a water mist should be applied to suppress it,” he wrote. “Ammonia smell may be noticeable.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the perimeter of the fire for hazardous materials, including ammonia, oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds.
Madore said no excesses were found.