North Dakota plant destroyed by fire

By Kris Bevill | August 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted Sept. 8, 2008 at 3:14 p.m. CST

A recent fire at All-American Biodiesel's plant in York, N.D., destroyed a quarter of the business and has brought to light a dangerous situation that could be repeated in rural communities throughout the United States.

York, N.D., population approximately 22, is a tiny farm town located in the central part of the state - the heart of North Dakota's small grain production area. About three years ago, the town's former school house was purchased by All-American Biodiesel with the intent of converting it to a 5 MMgy soy/canola-based biodiesel production facility. Randy Silliman, mayor of York, saw the potential hazards and argued for the plant's location to be denied. His own front door is less than 200 feet from the school, but people living on the opposite side of town didn't necessarily share Silliman's enthusiasm for prevention, "so that's why it's there," he said.

"You have to expect the unexpected, and I pushed for it to not be built in city limits," he said. "I just thought that it needed to be farther than 50 feet from businesses and residents." Silliman said the state fire code allows industrial businesses to operate just 50 feet from private residences. Unless towns pass zoning regulations or ordinances, there is nothing preventing businesses that use hazardous chemicals from operating within city limits. According to Silliman, most small towns, including York, don't have regulations "because we trust everybody."

Across the street from the Silliman residence is a fertilizer plant. A welding business and a grain elevator sit just down the road. Silliman said that even before the biodiesel plant, the town had all the makings for a big fire, which he thought was all the more reason to keep a facility that houses hazardous chemicals out of town. "It's the hydrochloric acid and methanol that scared me," he said.

A local volunteer fire department received a call at about midnight on Aug. 24, presumably from a passerby driving on the nearby interstate, reporting a fire at the biodiesel plant. Silliman and his family were sound asleep when a neighbor called him at about 1:30 a.m. to tell him about the fire. Silliman said he jumped out of bed and could immediately smell the putrid odor of acid burning. The glow of the fire at the plant could be seen from his bedroom window and his yard was filled with hazy smoke. He could see the lights of the emergency vehicles, but no one had come to his home to alert them to the fire.

A lack of communication is blamed for the oversight in informing local residents of a possible chemical fire. Silliman said the fire department was told the fire was "just a little bit of vegetable oil" and weren't immediately aware of the potential chemical hazards so residents were not evacuated. Silliman personally contacted the grain elevator operator and warned him to turn off the aerator fans that had been sucking hazardous fumes into the elevator and told other residents that they "should probably get out."

As it turned out, the fire was extinguished by the local volunteer fire department before any damage was done to surrounding buildings. One of All-American's four buildings was destroyed, as was as all the equipment inside the building. The state fire marshals office was called to investigate the fire, however, lingering hydrochloric acid vapors prevented them from conducting their investigation.

It could have been much worse, and Silliman knows it. "For the safety of the town, I wish that [the plant] wouldn't be allowed to be rebuilt," he said. He has contacted the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to request an investigation, but was told that they do not investigate accidents unless three or more people have sustained injuries. The North Dakota fire marshal's office said it won't determine negligence in an accident unless a death has occurred. "Nobody wants to prevent accidents anymore," Silliman lamented.

The owner of All-American Biodiesel declined to comment. It is unknown whether the plant will rebuild.

The risk being put on his family as a result of his home's proximity to the plant has caused Silliman to consider "picking it up and moving it," he said. An easterly breeze the night of the fire blew toxic air directly toward his home. One of Silliman's two daughters suffers from respiratory problems and has had trouble breathing because of the acid vapors that have invaded their home. Silliman said it will take professional cleaners two days to rid the house of the odor. Since the incident, Silliman has learned that many homeowners' insurance policies won't cover loss due to industrial accidents if the home is located near industrial facilities. "Even if your house burned down, some companies won't cover industrial accidents," he said. "My company didn't even know if they covered it or not." He was finally assured that his damages will be covered, but he will have to pay deductibles and might see his premiums increase.

Silliman, who is a farmer, said he remains supportive of both biodiesel and ethanol because he sees the good that both industries have done for American farmers and for energy independence. "We just don't need to build them [production facilities] in town," he said, adding that these new industries should perhaps take a step back and form some regulations before other, and potentially more dangerous, accidents occur.
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