Learning Lessons from Past Fires at Waste Management Facilities

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The latest waste management facility fire in Canada occurred on September 12th in Langely, British Columbia.  When emergency vehicles arrived on scene, they found the fire making its way through a pile of wood waste 60 metres high and 240 metres long. The wood waste consisted of lumber, logs, roots, stumps and pallets intended to be turned into hog fuel and bark mulch. It took over 36 hours for the fire department to put out the fire at the wood waste recycling facility.  The cause of the fire is being investigated.

Fire burns through a large pile of wood waste at a recycling facility in Langley, B.C. (Cory Correia/CBC)

At about the same time as the fire crews were battling the blaze at the Langley, B.C. waste management facility, an emergency response team of about 70 firefighters were fighting a massive fire at an Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia construction & demolition landfill.  It took over 12 hours to put out the fire at the Annapolis Valley facility.  A reward of $10,000 is being offered to any person who can provide information on how the fire started.

Earlier this summer, there was a fire at a GFL solid waste transfer station in Edmonton, Alberta.  The Edmonton Fire department arrived on scene at 3 am on July 29th and managed to get the fire under control by 6:30 am.  Fortunately, no one was injured.  The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation.  One hindrance to putting out the fire was the lack of fire hydrants in the vicinity of the facility.

Six-alarm fire at the GFL Recycling Facility in the Toronto Portlands, east of the downtown core (Photo Credit: PASCAL MARCHAND)

GFL also had a fire at one of its Toronto facilities in May 2017.  The massive fire required required a six-alarm response (17 pumpers, 6 aerials, 2 squads, 6 district chiefs, 1 platoon, 1 division commander, 1 command vehicle, 2 air supply trucks, 1 hazardous materials truck). The GFL recycling facility located on Cherry Street in the Port lands burned for days and resulted in $20 million in damage.   Originally, it was speculated that embers from fire works being set off in the area were the cause of the fire but it was subsequently ruled out.

Statistics

According to research performed by Ryan Fogelman of Michigan-based Fire Rover there were 268 fires reported in the news about recycling facilities in North America from July 2016 to July 2017.  Mr. Fogelman estimates this as a minimum during the reporting investigated period as it does not take into account any fires at facilities that were not reported in the news.  His latest research , dated April 2018, revealed a 48% Increase in waste & recycling facility fires in the first eight months of 2018 compared to 2017.

Why are things not getting better?

With each fire at a recycling and/or waste management facility, one would think that useful information would be obtained that could be subsequently applied to other facilities to prevent the same occurrence.  Unfortunately, the statistics appear to be telling a different story.

There could be a multitude of reasons for the increase in fires in 2018 over the previous year and the generally high number of fire at recycling and waste management facilities.  Mr. Fogelman of Fire Rover has speculated that it could a combination of factors including an onslaught of lithium-ion batteries found in waste streams, the increased material stock at facilities due to China’s recycling restrictions, and warmer/drier than usual weather from previous years.

A report prepared by the French Ministry of the Environment, Energy, and the Sea in 2016 concluded that fires at waste management facilities predominately fit into one of the following categories:

  • Fire caused by self combustion;
  • Fire caused by the presence of ignitable waste;
  • An accident subsequent to an unexpected chemical reaction during hazardous waste storage or handling;
  • Ignition subsequently to poor supervision of hot spot work locations;
  • Arson and/or vandalism;
  • Machinery fire caused by an electrical or mechanical problem;
  • A leak or overflow of a liquid storage tank containing ignitable and/or flammable material; and
  • Other causes (i.e., fire from neighbouring site).

The French report acknowledges that it is impossibe to describe all the accident configurations potentially
encountered within the various types of waste management facilities, it concludes that the several recurrent patterns stated above are worth mentioning.

Solutions

There is no one magic panacea for solving the riddle of fires at recycling and waste management facilities.  If there was, one would hope that it was being implemented.  What various codes, reports, and guidelines inevidently recommend are a serious of actions and equipment.

In some cases, fires may not be prevented (i.e., the presence of ignitable waste), but there are actions that can take place at a transfer/processing facility that can increase the risk of a fire.  Such actions (or inaction) can include poor storage practices, poor management systems, along with inadequate fire prevention and emergency response measures.

In the case of the 2016 French report on fires at waste management facilities are as follows:

  • Training of the various responders (technicians, watchmen, etc.) in chemical risks, wearing
    individual protective gear;
  • Improvement of the acceptance procedure (e.g. comparison drawn between the product
    safety sheet and the waste acceptance certificate);
  • Optimal supervision by means of waste handling (transfer/dispensation) procedures;
  • Enhanced controls of container cleanliness (absence of residue) / efficiency of cleaning
    operations prior to material transfer;
  • Physical isolation of incompatible products (use of separate premises, with cabinets as
    needed);
  • Improvement of monitoring / sorting upon acceptance in order to route the waste to the
    appropriate warehouse cells;
  • Modification of operating procedures: no warehousing of products that exhibit higher risk
    during periods of closure (weekends), complete ban on the warehousing of certain high-risk
    waste (e.g. batteries still fitted with their cables);
  • Expanded verifications before periods of closure and enhanced surveillance during such
    periods;
  • Depending on the typology of the waste involved, modification of the transfer technique in
    order to limit risks (e.g. transfer of used acids from bulk containers using stationary pumps
    rather than a transfer process that relies on compressed air);
  • More efficient controls prior to initiating the transfer operation;
  • Coordination pursued with waste producers on identifying substances in a way that avoids
    confusion: labelling, differentiation between types of containers / couplings with respect to
    the products;
  • Communication addressed to the supplier and shipper, training in the risks of incompatibilities
    both between products and between products and materials at the various stages throughout
    the supply chain; and
  • Revision of the risk analysis (safety report) to incorporate accident patterns (inclusion of the
    risk of placing incompatible products in contact with one another).

In some cases, the the environmental regulator can play a role in preventing fires at recycling/waste management sites through increased inspection and increased regulatory fees required of operators with poorly performing sites.  In some cases, a repeat offender may be denied the ability to obtain an operating permit.

For operators of recycling/waste management facilities, the cost of a fire far outweighs the time, effort, and cost to prevent them.  Fires result in a disruption to business, increased insurance premiums, clean-up costs, potential fines, and damage to business reputation.  As an industry, a renewed commitment to fire prevention at recycling/waste management facilities would be a benefit to all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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