YAKIMA — A private environmental contractor is handling the cleanup after a fire at a Sunnyside fertilizer storage plant last week.
About 200 tons of sulfur were burned in the fire on Feb. 28 at Nutrien Ag Solutions, 1101 Midvale Road, releasing pollutant sulfur dioxide into the air. Chemicals in adjacent buildings were spared.
The site was turned back over to the company after the fire was put out March 1.
The fire occurred shortly after a load of sulfur was deposited in a storage building on the southeast corner of the facility, Sunnyside Fire Chief Anderson said Tuesday. The conveyor belt that was being used to unload the sulfur sounded a dust alarm before employees noted the smoldering sulfur in one of the building’s bunkers and called the fire department, he said.
Anderson said powdered or pulverized sulfur is at a higher risk of catching fire than sulfur pellets, which he said are coated in a substance that prevents friction.
“It’s normally in this pellet form, so there really should be no dust, but we believe because of the transportation, some of the pellets got pulverized or powdered,” Anderson said.
He said the fire department believes the fire was a mechanical fire, but there isn’t a way to know for certain because the machinery that was used to unload the sulfur was damaged in the blaze.
“We know that it has to do with the offloading process,” Anderson said.
Anderson also said there were high winds on Feb. 28, which could have affected the dust, fire start and movement of smoke in the area.
Anderson said Nutrien’s insurance adjuster has not yet been to the site but is expected to arrive late this week or early next. Nutrien and the insurance company are each bringing in their own fire investigators to review the site, he said.
A firefighter with West Benton Fire Rescue was injured while responding to the fire. He was sent to Prosser Memorial Hospital with chemical burns, treated and discharged.
Some of the chemicals that caught fire can lead to health or environmental hazards. Anderson said the burning sulfur released sulfur dioxide, which he said is an irritant.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency reports that sulfur dioxide can harm the respiratory system and make breathing difficult, particularly for children with asthma. High concentrations of sulfur oxides can also harm trees and plants by damaging foliage and decreasing growth, according to the EPA.
Anderson said liquid ammonium sulfate was present at the facility, but he said it did not burn and there was no anhydrous, or gaseous, ammonia reported after the incident.
Liquid ammonium sulfate was leaking and contained to catch basins, he said.
Evacuation orders for 18 homes and shelter-at-home orders for other residential areas of Sunnyside were lifted March 1.
Anderson said the evacuations were done in accordance with the state Department of Transportation emergency response guide and out of an abundance of caution.
“In the absence of knowing exactly what we have and knowing exactly how those components interact with each other and how those components actually interact once on fire, we kind of take the worst of all the evil and we go with that,” Anderson said. “Luckily, in this case, it ended up being probably the least of all evils.”
A third-party contractor is on site to clean up fire and fertilizer debris, Nutrien spokesperson Leigh Picchetti said in an email. Anderson identified the contractor as hazardous waste removal and environmental services company U.S. Ecology.
Cleanup after incidents like the fire at the Nutrien facility can be handled by the state Department of Ecology or by a private environmental contractor, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a spokesperson with the Department of Ecology. She said the department has already been contacted by the contractor, which will sample for hazardous waste and chemicals at the site.
“The whole goal is to properly dispose of whatever debris has occurred as a result of the fire,” she said. “This environmental contracting firm will undertake that, and they’ll likely submit us reports as to how they’re intending to manage the cleanup.”
Anderson said the contractor hasn’t found any contaminants outside the footprint of the destroyed building so far.
U.S. Ecology did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Nutrien spokesperson Picchetti did not immediately respond to a question about contaminants or hazardous materials.
Sunnyside employees returned to work on Friday, Picchetti said in an email, and the facility is back in operation with the exception of the dry fertilizer shed and the liquid fertilizer load-out area.
“Fortunately, we have other nearby facilities providing these products to ensure there is minimal disruption in delivering the supplies that area growers need as we head into spring,” Picchetti said in the statement.