Government of Ontario

OFM - Waste Handling 4

Protecting the Public and the Environment

7. THE ONTARIO EXPERIENCE

While not an everyday occurrence, the Plastimet fire is a blunt reminder that, in Ontario's experience, a fire in a waste handling or recycling facility is not an isolated incident. Within 18 days of the Hamilton fire, two other recycling fires had broken out. The first occurred only 48 hours after the Plastimet emergency had been declared over, in the same industrial section of Hamilton, where quick action by the plant personnel and the fire department extinguished the fire in about an hour. Thirteen days later, a fire at a shredded tire storage facility erupted at the North Bay airport.
 

Ontario has experienced several fires that have had an impact on the environment and the public. Two significant fires in Ontario having an environmental impact were the Kitchener and Hagersville fires.

KITCHENER

Date

March 6, 1987
 

Incident

Chemical fire
 

Duration

4 hours
 

Cost Impact
 
 

$750,000 in property damage and loss of contents. No cost estimates available for emergency response. This company spent additional money to clean-up the site.
 

Air Contamination

Phosgene, phenol vapours, sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde & acrolein may have been released into the atmosphere.
 

Surface Water
 

Run-off water washed chemicals & dyes into the ground & creek. Dyes & chemical are water soluble - no cleanup necessary.
 

Ground Water

Unknown
 

Water Contaminated by Fire Fighting

Unknown
 

Evacuations

- 12 evacuated
- 12 treated for smoke inhalation
- 4 km radius evacuated
- 600 left homes temporarily
- 5 families left their homes permanently
 

While these statistics give some limited indication of each incident's impact on its community, many other significant immediate and long term impacts occur.
 

In addition, although Ontario does not maintain statistics specific to waste handling and recycling facilities, a review of Ontario's fire loss statistics for a two year period between 1994 and 1995, of facilities that store, handle or process all categories of waste or hazardous materials reveals:

• 202 fires

• total property damage of $7,200,000

• 26 injuries

• 1 fatality

 

Numerous case histories are available that demonstrate the impact of these occurrences. A few examples are outlined in Annex C of this Report. These examples show that Ontario's recent experience is not unique.
 

 

7.1 Case Study - The Plastimet Story

History of the Site

In 1925, United Steel and Refining Co. started a scrap metal business at 363 Wellington Street, North, Hamilton, Ontario. The operation later became known as Usarco Ltd. and included the smelting of brass, bronze and aluminum into ingots.

 

During 1990, Usarco went in to receivership. In August 1993, Court appointed receivers salvaged what they could from the property.
 

There were two major fires at the property in 1993, one on June 28th which destroyed a portion of the office area in the southeast portion of the building and another on July 17th that destroyed a northern portion of the plant. The building was secured by the City in August 1993, fenced and padlocked.
 

Another large fire occurred to the main building on June 25th, 1994. The fire department placed a Fire Marshals Order on the property later in June 1994, to secure doors and windows. This work was completed by the previous operator of the Usarco business.
 

Subsequent notices by the fire department to the owner of breaches in security for the property, received satisfactory attention.
 

During September 1994 and August 1995, there were two small fires in the main building, believed to be the result of vandalism.
 

The building was leased to Plastimet in late 1995 and production started in March 1996. The Fire Department's first inspections of Plastimet occurred in September and October 1996.
 

During March 1997 and April 1997, there were two fires on the property, one was a rubbish fire at the rear of the property and the other was in a small concrete block shed, also located at the rear of the property. The cause of these fires was undetermined. It was noted by the responding fire crews that the property was open to trespass.
 

Property Description
 

The building was originally constructed in the early 1920s, with several later additions. Except for the former office area, the building was one storey. It was constructed with a solid timber and metal roof on exposed steel trusses. Walls were brick, masonry and wood; floors were concrete with no provision for containment of firefighting water runoff.
 

There were no heating systems in the building and no gas supplies to the building.
 

The building was not served with automatic sprinkler protection or a fire alarm system.
 

The useable area of the building was approximately 7,400 m2 (80,000 sq. ft.). A fire damaged area existed in the northern portion of the building, facing Simcoe Street, where collapse of walls and roof had occurred. A fire had also occurred in the two storey office and lab area in the south-east end of the building, and this area was mostly unused.
 

The property was triangular in shape. The rail tracks bounded the property on the south side and to the north and the west on a sloping curve. The east side was bounded by Wellington St. North. Simcoe St. intersected the rail line and Wellington St. North on the north side. The property on the west and south was bounded by a chain link fence and by a solid wood and chain link fence on the north side. There were some breaches in the fencing. Other security measures against unwanted entry from the Wellington St. side could not be determined.
 

Yard storage, mainly foam backed polyvinyl chloride (PVC), was noted at the south-east end of the property and to the west.
 

The building is located in an older mixed occupancy area in northern Hamilton, with a large vacant industrial building to the south across the rail lines. An industrial building associated with the preparation of cans for the food industry is located to the east across Wellington St. North. To the north and west is a small parkette with residential homes adjoining. The Hamilton General Hospital is located about 240 m (800 ft.) to the south-east and the Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Detention Centre about the same distance to the south west.

Operations Prior to the Fire

At the fire department's first inspection in 1996, Plastimet was receiving plastics and instrument panel trimmings from the automotive industry for recycling. These plastics were reported to include PVC plastic, a portion of which was polyurethane foam backed and polyethylene. The PVC with polyurethane foam backing included a thin plastic film as a protector on some of the material. The foam backed plastic was received in wire banded bales approximately 2.0 m (80 in.) long x 0.81 m (32 in.) wide x 1.2 m (48 in.) high.
 

The initial inspection noted that the 3,800m2 (41,200 sq. ft.) storage area was essentially one large pile. Stock was palletized and storage was mainly 3 bales high (between 3.0 m (10 ft.) and 3.7 m (12 ft.)). Old smelting equipment and a small lunchroom were adjacent to the main pile.
 

A subsequent re-inspection revealed the stock was piled in an adjacent section of the building, which had been inaccessible, due to piling arrangements, during the first inspection. This increased the area for storage to include most of the remaining building area.
 

Processed material in the form of granulated plastic was stored in palletized cardboard cartons approximately 1.2 m (4 ft.) wide x 1.2 m (4 ft.) long x 1.1 m (3.5 ft.) high, one and two cartons high. This storage was along the east wall between the processing area in the north-east corner of the building and the office located in the south-east corner.
 

Plastimet estimated the maximum amount of materials that would be stored at the site, at any one time, would be 250 metric tonnes. OFM estimates the total quantity stored could be about 10 times that.
 

The processing area and adjacent aisles comprised an area approximately 15 m x 15 m (50 ft. x 50 ft.). The equipment included a granulator that ground the material and two cyclone machines that separated the heavy material from the light. The second cyclone separated the large foam chunks from the finer pieces of foam and film. The equipment did not use flame or hot services.
 

Cartons of clean vinyl would be removed by the truckload when sufficient quantities had been accumulated. The portion of the separated foam that was marketable was also removed by the truckload, when sufficient quantities had been accumulated.
 

Propane powered lift trucks were used to move stock in the plant, unprocessed stock in the yard, and to load tractor trailers from one of the shipping doors on the east wall of the plant. At the time of the initial inspection, lift trucks were not isolated from storage when idle. Propane cylinders were not segregated or protected in the plant area. This was subsequently rectified by the tenant.
 

The plant was understood to operate over extended business hours each day and could operate Saturday and Sunday as needed. The plant was occupied at the time of the fire.

Enforcement Activities Prior to the Fire

Inspection activities had been conducted by Ministry of Environment and Energy (MOEE) and by the Hamilton Fire Department. With the decision that the property did not need to operate under a Certificate of Approval, by reason of its recycling operation, inspections by the MOEE enforcement branch discontinued. From observations at its October 1, 1996 inspection, the Hamilton Fire Department issued a Notice of Violation dated October 15, 1996 to the tenant, Plastimet Inc. on the following items, with the following compliance dates:

Compliance date--November 4, 1996

• provide signs to indicate the location of fire extinguishers

Compliance date--November 11, 1996

• requirement for a fire safety plan

 

• establish individual storage piles of prescribed height and area

 

• provide at least one main aisle the length of the building

 

• provide aisles around each individual storage pile

 

• provide aisles to the sides of the building, exits and fire protection equipment

 

• provide clearance between storage piles and adjacent walls

 

• arrange palletized storage to limit length of unobstructed horizontal channel created by the pallets

 

• store unused wooden pallets safely outside the building

 

• provide a fire extinguisher with each lift truck

 

• secure compressed gas cylinders against mechanical damage

 

• provide fire extinguishers throughout building area to meet travel distance requirements

 

• provide safe storage arrangements for fuel-fired lift trucks

 

• provide a safe location for the exchange of propane cylinders on lift trucks

 

• store propane cylinders in conformance with the Propane Storage, Handling and Utilization Code

Compliance date--November 25, 1996

• * install automatic sprinkler protection throughout the building

 

• * install exits to meet the requirements of the Ontario Building Code

 

• * install emergency lighting in all exits and access to exits in conformance with the Ontario Building Code

 

• * provide a two hour fire separation between the occupied portion of the building and the fire damaged northern portion of the building

 

• obtain building permits from the Hamilton Building Department for the installation of automatic sprinklers, exits, emergency lighting and the two hour fire separation

 

* (The above requirements were based on 2.1.2.2. of the Ontario Fire Code, where activities not allowed for in the original design of the building are not to be carried out unless provisions are made to alleviate the hazard and the carrying on of the activities is approved by the fire department. The original building design was intended to support metal salvage operations, an F3 occupancy, under the Ontario Building Code. The plastics recycling operation was deemed an F2 occupancy, based on projected combustible loading in excess of 49 kg/m2 (10 lbs./ ft.2).)
 

Continued Enforcement Activity
 

The fire department undertook re-inspections on November 14, 1996, December 19, 1996, February 25, 1997 and April 23, 1997. It was determined a number of the requirements had been met or were in progress. The tenant was advised on November 14, 1996, that he could obtain the services of an engineer, to evaluate the protection options dealing with the amount of indoor storage and the provision of the fire wall. It was noted that stock was being stored in the yard and the tenant was informed of the Ontario Fire Code requirements for outdoor storage.

 

At the time of the April 23, 1997 re-inspection, the fire department recorded that all items on the Notice of Violation were done except the preparation and approval of a fire safety plan, the installation of automatic sprinklers, the exits, emergency lights and the two hour fire separation. The fire department recorded that they had discussed with Plastimet a 30 day timeframe, for compliance with outstanding items of the Notice of Violation, or that an engineer must be hired for consultation on options and building permits obtained. Failing that, charges would be laid.
 

An engineer was hired in May 1997. His report suggested options for bringing the operations into compliance with the Ontario Fire Code. Option 3 of the engineer's report suggested reduction of storage to less than 49 kg/m2 (10 pounds/ft.2), removal/ demolition of the fire damaged northern portion of the building, clean-up of this area to allow unobstructed access for fire fighting and organization of exterior storage to comply with Section 3.5 of the Ontario Fire Code. This option would effectively reduce the building area to 7,000 m2 (75,300 ft.2) and reduce the building classification under the Ontario Building Code, to that of an F3 occupancy facing two streets. This negated the sprinkler requirement and the need for the 2 hour fire separation. At a meeting on July 3, 1997 with the fire department, Plastimet selected option #3 and phased compliance dates for the work required were discussed. The summary of events produced by the Hamilton Fire Department indicated a letter by Plastimet was required by July 11, 1997 to confirm the company's intentions to follow option #3 and indicated phased compliance dates:
 

• inside storage to be reduced to less than 49 kg/m2 (10 pounds/sq. ft.) and an outside storage assessment with Section 3.5 to be conducted by July 28, 1997,

 

• demolition of the fire damaged portion by August 7, 1997, and

 

• outside storage to comply with Section 3.5 by September 15, 1997.

 

The letter from Plastimet was also to include a rider that, at any time in the future, the above noted storage quantities would not be exceeded. In addition, the letter would confirm that the remainder of the outstanding requirements of the previous Notice of Violation (fire safety plan, exits, emergency lights) would be completed.
 

The Plastimet Fire
 

On Wednesday, July 9, 1997, the Hamilton Fire Department responded to 363 Wellington St. North, Hamilton to find the building fully involved in fire. The building was occupied by the tenant, Plastimet Inc., for recycling of plastics. There was no loss of life due to the fire. An evacuation was ordered during the course of the fire during an atmospheric inversion. Suppression operations continued until about 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, 1997.
 

Events of the Fire
 

It was determined that the fire was first observed at the north end of the building. The employees working in the central area of the building observed only the odour of smoke. First indication of this was about 7:30 p.m. Hamilton Fire Department was notified via 911 at 7:42 p.m. The first truck arrived at 7:45 p.m. During this 15 minute interval, the fire had progressed to every corner of the building.
 

The fire suppression activities continued for four days. Damage was extensive to the building including essentially total roof collapse. During this time, heavy equipment was used to demolish walls, separate piles of burning materials and move debris.
 

The fire released a heavy black cloud of smoke, rising several hundred metres into the air. This hot rising plume of smoke continued through July 9th and July 10th . During this period of the fire, smoke would have affected a broad area of downtown Hamilton. Over the night of July 10th /11th , reduced heating of the fire plume, combined with a strong temperature inversion over the area, resulted in the smoke fumes remaining close to the ground. For the remainder of the fire, the fumes had much more impact in the local fire area than in surrounding parts of the city. Due to the slow moving high pressure system over southern Ontario throughout the period of the fire, wind speeds were very light and the direction of the winds varied with time across the Hamilton area. Because of the variable wind directions, the plume would have been transported over many parts of the city during the fire.
 

Sampling done by the Ministry of the Environment and Energy included over 3,000 tests on 217 samples gathered at 83 sites. Further sampling was conducted during the week of July 21-28. Samples of air, water, soot, vegetation and soil taken during the fire and the weeks following, came from a variety of locations throughout the city. Results of these tests were made available to the public by MOEE.
 

During the course of the fire, the Fire Department estimated it pumped approximately 100 million litres (22,000,000 imperial gallons) of water onto the fire. Private haulers transported to private toxic waste treatment facilities some 2.3 million litres (500,000 imperial gallons) of firefighting runoff. As well, runoff water was pumped to the Region's sanitary sewers in the amount of an estimated 6.8 million litres (1,500,000 imperial gallons). Most of the remainder of the water passed through the storm sewers to Hamilton Harbour about 610 m (2000 ft.) to the north.
 

7.2 OFM Investigation

Due to the almost total destruction of the building by the fire, disturbance of evidence by heavy equipment and firefighting activities and the toxic chemical contamination, a site investigation was not conducted. However, where there has been extensive fire damage, it is not unusual for OFM investigations to be completed successfully without the benefit of a detailed on-site investigation.
 

A vigorous investigation is continuing with the participation of Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police. At this time a final cause determination has not been made. Numerous personnel are involved in conducting interviews, establishing circumstances surrounding the incident, and collecting evidence.