Hillcrest fire could take week to extinguish

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the lead in responding to a fire at Hillcrest Industries in Attica and the agency reports progress is being made in extinguishing the fire and controlling the odors that led neighbors to complain for several months.

Photo courtesy of state DEC. This pile of recyclables is the source of a fire at Hillcrest Industries in Attica.

The source of the fire is a 40-foot, 50,000-ton pile of plastic, glass and other materials. The pile, which has been smoldering and steaming since May, is 1-acre in circumference, said EPA spokesman Mike Basile today. The company uses the glass to make road-stripping beads, Basile said.

“The number one priority for the EPA is to put this fire out,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA regional administrator, in a prepared statement on Sept. 26. “By breaking the piles apart, we can expose the fire and extinguish it in smaller, more manageable sections. While the work is going on, there may be an increase in the smoke and steam coming from the fires and also there may be visible steam or fog from the water misting system that will help us control this increased smoke. I want to assure the community near the site that we are doing everything possible to put this fire out quickly and eliminate any smoke or pollution from being released into the air.”

On Saturday, EPA officials said that efforts to put out the fire were going well, with about 5,200 cubic yards of material, or about 150 tons, moved and extinguished.

“Starting tomorrow, work will be conducted in a 12 hour daytime shift and overnight work will be  suspended, as the steam and mist make working under artificial light difficult. Smoke and odors  are under control. There is visible steam from the piles. Results of real time monitoring show  levels of volatile organic compounds are very low at the site and not detected at the school. The  EPA will continue its work until the fire is entirely out and will continue to monitor the air,” the EPA press release states.

Basile estimated the crews would be finished by Sunday.

The EPA also tested the air quality at the site and the results can be found here. The samples were taken at 10 locations on Sept. 13, and 31 of 68 volatile organic compounds tested were detected. There were elevated levels of benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and styrene from the burning pile, but most were well below screening levels.  The levels of benzene from a single off-site sample were “slightly” above health-based screening levels, Basile said.

“While the numbers we use in determining health risk are conservative, there is no doubt that benzene is bad for people and this data underscores the need to put this fire out as quickly as possible, which is what the EPA is now working to do,” Enck said. 

Basile said that as of this morning, the air monitoring stations working around the clock every day have not detected any particulates leaving the site.

The state DEC believes the community is safe.

“A clear pattern suggesting emissions of solvent VOCs from the Hillcrest facility, affecting air quality in the adjacent community, was not observed. Air contaminants that are odorous at very low concentrations were observed in the analysis but are not reported in the results because their concentrations cannot be estimated with this method. Overall, the results do not indicate a health concern in the community from increased exposure to industrial solvent chemicals assessed with this sampling method. Nevertheless, acute health symptoms such as headache, nausea and cough could still be expected among residents experiencing persistent strong odors from chemicals not captured in these sampling results.”

The EPA created a website for people to track the progress. The state DEC also has a website tracking the progress.

DEC FAQ:

What is Hillcrest Industries? The Hillcrest Industries facility located on Favor Street in Attica processes glass fragments (cullet) into reflective road striping beads and abrasive blast media. The facility also collects boiler slag material (hardened residue collected from off-site coal boilers) and processes it into abrasive blast media (sandblasting materials).

What is the source of the odor? A pile containing glass fragments mixed with plastic, paper and metal generated from household recycling that the plant uses to make sandblasting materials and reflective glass beads is the major source of odors. No new material has been added to the pile since mid-July. At first, the odors in the pile were generated by decaying food residue which is adhered to the glass and plastic. As this waste broke down, it created odor problems. As this activity continued, the material began to heat and smolder. The smoke and smoldering created odors due to the paper and plastic within the pile being consumed.

What is the source of the dust? Hillcrest continues to manufacture reflective glass beads using other stock piles of clean glass. Dust is generated when the boiler slag and glass are ground down to smaller sizes. Most of this dust is captured in dust collectors but some is released into the environment. Dust may also be blown off the facility roadways and the slag pile.

What is Hillcrest doing to address community concerns? To reduce particulate emissions (dust) Hillcrest has repaired leaking process equipment, sealed off broken bag filters, ordered replacement filters, applied a dust suppressant to the facility’s roadways, washes truck tires before they exit the facility, and covered some of the piles comprised of fine material with Posi-shell. Hillcrest continues to remove the piles of plastic and paper that have been separated from the glass fragments from the property. Hillcrest implemented several measures in an attempt to reduce odors and to decrease the temperature in the interior of the pile. These measures included an air withdrawal and treatment system (not currently in use), a nitrogen/carbon dioxide injection system, and application of an impermeable Posi-shell cover system. Nine injection wells were installed in the pile and nitrogen/carbon dioxide was injected in an attempt to remove oxygen from the pile and reduce the temperatures in the pile. The temperature of the pile at each injection point is being monitored. Following installation of the Posi-shell cover system on August 31, 2012, injections of nitrogen and later carbon dioxide resumed. Despite these efforts, the temperatures have remained high in two locations and the pile continues to smolder. In one location, the temperature was as high as 750 degrees F but has been has low as 650 degrees F. A second location is in the 500 – 550 degree range. The remaining 6 locations are in the 150 – 225 degree range. Based on the temperatures recorded in the glass, paper and plastic pile and the visual evidence of smoke leaving the pile, we believe that the pile is smoldering as the paper and plastic in the pile are consumed. Hillcrest representatives are currently checking with companies that deal with fire suppression/elimination and are reviewing proposals for implementation in the near future.