Local firefighters responded to multiple fire calls recently at a North Vernon company that in the past has been cited multiple times by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) for improper storage and discharge of solid waste and contaminants.
Firefighters from North Vernon, Vernon, Spencer Township, Geneva Township and Westport responded to Pacific Ocean Corporation, 690 Ertel Lane in North Vernon, for an early evening fire at their warehouse on Wednesday, April 7. No one was inside the building at the time of the blaze and there were no injuries. Structural damage was minimal.
Pacific Ocean Corporation receives steel exposed to moisture and oil, cleans it, dries it and turns it into iron oxide and then transports it to North Vernon Industry Corporation (NVIC). According to North Vernon Fire Chief Mike Cole, his crew had to return to the building everyday from Wednesday to Saturday because metal dust throughout the warehouse kept reigniting.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Cole said, explaining that in order to put out the fire, you need water, but more water equals more moisture which makes metal hotter and more combustable. However, firefighters haven’t had to return to the site since Saturday, so the risk of further eruption has likely diminished.
Pacific Ocean has had previous run-ins with IDEM for allowing contaminants and/or solid waste to be discharged into the environment. North Vernon City Council has also expressed concerns about the deterioration of the company’s building and the hazardous material that is being transported between the warehouse and NVIC.
According to court documents, starting on March 21, 2019, IDEM conducted an inspection of the warehouse and determined that Pacific Ocean had allowed open-top tote containers containing swarf and residual fluid to collect rainwater, which overflowed onto the ground and migrated outside of the facility into a drainage ditch. The company then failed to perform a hazardous waste determination on the residual fluids and containers that were located outside.
IDEM issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) on Aug. 29, 2019 and then issued a Notice and Order of the Commissioner of IDEM (“Commissioner’s Order”) on Aug. 5, 2020. The Commissioner’s Order required, inter alia, that Pacific Ocean immediately make proper waste determinations for, and properly dispose of, the solid wastes at the site and submit records of these events to IDEM; clean up the releases discovered during the March 2019 inspection by excavating the soil at least six inches beyond visible contamination and submitting photographic documentation of the proper excavation; and pay a civil penalty of $24,000.
On Dec. 1, 2020, IDEM conducted another inspection of the site which concluded that Pacific Ocean had not corrected any of the violations described in the NOV of the Commissioner’s Order or pay the civil penalty. It was also determined that additional spills had occurred.
The Commissioners from IDEM then filed a petition for civil enforcement against Pacific Ocean on April 6, the day before the warehouse caught fire.
There were concerns about possible air and water pollution resulting from the fire, however Fire Chief Cole says he spoke with IDEM and the city’s water company and they are not worried about potential contamination.
The official cause of last Wednesday’s incident is unknown and is currently under investigation by the State Fire Marshal, the North Vernon Fire Department and Pacific Ocean’s insurance company.