Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Your Health and Rail-tie Processing in Williams Lake. Part 3: Rail ties and Fire


Creosote burns hot and fast but that is only part of the problem. Uncontrolled fire in creosote results in a great quantity of incompletely combusted compounds. Consider the dioxins, PAHs, and chlorophenols noted in my previous blog. The black smoke coming from such a fire would be full of those. No one would recommend that anyone be exposed to any of this.

A fire in this material could be a major problem depending upon which way the wind is blowing. People in the way of the smoke should either stay indoors and seal off all doors and windows, or leave town as quickly and safely as possible. Of those I have spoken to about this, the minimum noted was 'partial evacuation of the downtown.' I know that sounds dramatic, but this would not be a typical fire. If the city had the further misfortune of a fire occurring during an air inversion (see here for information about inversions in Williams Lake), the smoke would be trapped in the city.

I've asked the City of Williams Lake if the Fire Chief believes that a fire in these chips could be put out. Apparently the Chief believes it could be. I hope he is correct, but consider the short video available below, or at this link if you have a problem with the video below playing.

In the case documented by the video:

1) the wind was blowing the smoke away and because the fire was surrounded by grassland, fire fighters had access. The chip storage area in Williams Lake has very limited access as three sides are valley cliffs;

2) Although the fire was 'contained' the option of actually putting it out did not seem to be on the table. They had to let it burn out by itself;

3) This was a fire in a portion of 1,000 unchipped rail-ties. Chipped wood will burn faster and the quantity on site in Williams Lake is certainly greater than 1,000 ties;

4) The fire documented in the video was clearly not immediately adjacent to the downtown district of a city.

What are the odds of a fire in these chips? Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already but the fact that the site has access only from one side probably keeps most people out. The site, however, is directly across the street from a pub. There is no fence. It only takes one person, waiting for a ride late at night, who heads across the street to empty their bladder, who flicks a cigarette....

I'm all for trying to find win-win solutions to problems, but in this case, the chipping and storage of rail-ties in Williams Lake needs to stop.

Header Photo: Chipped and unchipped rail-ties behind the Station House Gallery
Photo Credit: R. Higgins


Unknown said...

My understanding is that these are CN ties. If that is the case then it is Pentachrophnol not creosote. Although alot of ties may have both. Unless the ties are tested you just dont know. A Pentachrophnol fire would be very bad. Poisonous gases, including hydrogen chloride and chlorinated phenols, are produced in a fire involving pentachlorophenol. If it comes into contact with strong oxidizers such as chlorine, bromine, and fluorine, violent reactions occur.

Foam, dry chemical or carbon
dioxide is used for oil fires, penta is oil based.

Evaluation of environmental contamination caused by pentachlorophenol (PCP) fires is extremely costly and time consuming because elaborate measurements of polychlorinated dibenzodioxin and furan (PCDD/F) isomers are required.

Unknown said...

The decision to let it burn was made after consulting with the Washington state Department of Ecology.

“Because there is creosote on the ties it takes copious amounts of water to put out a fire like that,” said Miller. “We had to weigh the risk of leaching pollutants into the aquifer against any health risk associated with the smoke.” He said most of the smoke was going straight up and dissipating – not drifting over the fairgrounds or nearby neighborhoods.

“As soon as the site is safe to enter, the owner must make an assessment of ash, debris and soil to determine if there is any contamination,” said Curt Hart, a state Ecology Department spokesman. “We put the onus on the owner of the property – the owner must clean up any contamination.”

Dr. Rob Higgins said...

The issue of pentachlorophenols appears to be coming up a fair bit. One question for Kamloops, is the concern about PCPs during incineration (not concerning uncontrolled fires here) because these unstable molecules are a source of chlorine for dioxin formation? I'm trying to nail this detail down.

Unknown said...

Cp Ties are treated with Creosote, CN Ties Penta from my understanding.
If the tie chip piles catch on fire you will have a real mess on your hands as I believe that is mostly Penta treated ties. You may want to confirm what those ties are. Creosote of course is bad as well.

In Kamloops the proposed plant was not allowed to use CN Ties die to the penta in them.

From Permit in Kamloops -
Authorized Fuels
The authorized fuel material to be combusted in the gasifiers shall be limited to untreated wood residues or chipped creosote treated rail ties originating from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The Permittee shall ensure that there are no prohibited materials in the feedstock.
2.8.1 Prohibited materials include, but are not limited to, utility poles treated with any type of wood preservative, rail ties treated with Pentachlorophenol (PCP), ammoniacal copper zinc arsenate (ACZA), or chromated copper arsenate (CCA)

Unknown said...


Special Fire Fighting Procedures: Toxic gas and ash are generated on combustion. Firefighters should use self contained breathing apparatus and avoid contact.
Unusual Fire And Explosion Hazards: Generates Hydrochloric Acid on combustion.

Anonymous said...

Rob, this is scary but important stuff. keep it coming!