Editorial by Guy Crittenden

Hamilton Plastics Fire Coverup

What the officials aren't admitting


Allegations that the public was neither properly informed about nor protected from dangerous chemical fallout from the recent Plastimet Inc. fire in Hamilton appear to be well founded. The response to the incident was woefully inadequate; the fire chief had only been on the job for two weeks and, from a public health and safety perspective, this major industrial accident was treated as if it was just a large house fire.

Plastiment was slapped with 20 fire code violations last October, including the lack of a sprinkler system. The authorities, accused of foot dragging, were to meet with company officials on July 11, 1997 to discuss the sprinkler issue. However, just two days before the scheduled meeting, 400 tonnes of plastic, including PVC, caught fire. The smoke plume travelled across Hamilton's lower north end, landing on the middle of Hamilton Mountain. Both areas are primarily residential neighbourhoods, not industrial. Many Italian and Portuguese families maintain home vegetable gardens; concern about dioxin levels in these gardens, though valid, has obscured analysis of other disturbing aspects of the fire.

Winds shifted direction 180 degrees on numerous occasions during the 77 hour fire. Swirls of dense contaminated smoke frequently engulfed the sidewalk, citizens, and the poorly-located emergency response command post and staging area. Even the catering truck was covered with soot and fallout. Responders decked out in protective clothing and SCUBA equipment found themselves standing beside citizens in street clothes, temporarily blocked from view by the acrid smoke.

There was no evacuation until the third day of the fire, and even that was poorly managed. When an advisory was sent out over local media, people began leaving their homes. There were no authorities around to direct them, so people walked toward the fire, hoping that someone at the epicentre of the disaster might be able to tell them where to flee. Turns out the police were at the station waiting for the delivery of respiratory protection equipment! Only after they were outfitted did they go out to direct people. One has to ask, how could the police not have adequate respiratory protection equipment on-hand, three days after the start of this huge industrial fire?

It's standard NFPA procedure that, when faced with an unknown parameter, you over-protect, then downgrade the emergency once safe conditions have been proven. The most damning violation of this principle was the failure to properly protect the Hamilton General Hospital, which was extremely close to the fire. Eyewitnesses say the hospital was engulfed in thick black, yellow, or grey smoke about 75 per cent of the time. At a minimum, the hospital's own emergency procedures should have been followed. These called for shut-off of ventilation systems and lock-up of exterior doors. Instead, doors remained unlocked with people coming and going. Incredibly, a hospital worker on the roof of the building instructed staff in the basement, via two-way radio, to close the ventilation system whenever an unusually-large billow of smoke hit the building. Invariably, some of this contaminated smoke was sucked inside, exposing patients to noxious gases over a period of several days.

While the actions of individual fire fighters were commendable, who will be held to account for the fact that many of them wore no respiratory protection at all? Many of these men have subsequently become ill and suffer severe bouts of coughing. Long term health effects could be serious; when plastic breaks down in a fire, particularly at the low temperatures brought on by water dousing, the worst products of incomplete combustion (e.g., dioxins, furans) are emitted. Large clouds of hydrochloric acid were formed by the burning PVC, and local populations were certainly exposed to unknown amounts of acid, benzene, and other compounds. Vegetation around the site was extensively destroyed and mirrors on trucks corroded to the point of being useless. People have complained of sickness, nausea, and the mysterious sudden death of household pets. It's very misleading for health authorities to suggest that just because dioxin on local gardens has fallen to normal background levels, there's nothing to worry about.

The environment ministry completely dropped the ball. Though calls were placed within minutes of the start of the fire and some staff live only minutes away, it took the ministry two hours to get a person to the site. Initial readings of pollutants were taken with an inferior $90 air sampling instrument whose measuring tubes were stale-dated. The ministry's million-dollar TAGA remote air sensing vehicle did not arrive until early the next morning, authorization for the vehicle's dispatch only granted after local MPP Lilian Ross called Environment Minister Norm Sterling and woke him in the middle of the night.

Approximately 759,000 litres of contaminated runoff was discharged to local sewers every hour at the direction of the Region. Huge quantities of the runoff made their way, untreated, into Hamilton harbour. Even though heavily diluted, the runoff was so contaminated it qualified as hazardous waste by government standards. Didn't that tell the authorities something about the toxicity of the smoke that was emanating from the same fire? Apparently not.

Public outrage over the whole incident is justified. The environment ministry has announced it will fund an independent review of the site cleanup. However, this "after the fact" action will not address the more serious matter of the bungled emergency response into which the Premier must launch the official investigation to which he has already alluded. Otherwise, we will learn nothing about how to respond to such disasters in future.