The Brunswick News, Ga.
Jun. 22—Before flames erupted into an explosion May 2 at a massive warehouse crammed with wood pellets near neighborhoods in Brunswick’s south end, employees there spent an entire day trying to control the fire without contacting the city’s fire department, Georgia’s State Fire Marshal’s office concluded.
The resulting conflagration that Sunday evening sent flames shooting 75 feet in the air above the 40,000-square-foot Logistec warehouse at the East River Terminal, creating an all-too-familiar scene for Brunswick firefighters and south end residents. In addition to failing to quickly notify the Brunswick Fire Department of the fire, Logistec officials apparently stored pellets too high in the cavernous warehouse and did not have proper authorization to store products that produce “combustible dust.”
The wood pellets were “decomposing” when “spontaneous combustion” occurred, the fire marshal’s office concluded.
These are among the findings of an investigation into the fire by the State Fire Marshal, operating under Georgia’s Office of Commissioner of Insurance and Safety Fire (OCI).
The report submitted Monday laid out half a dozen conditions Logistec must meet to resume wood pellet storage operations at its leased facility at the Port of Brunswick on the East River. Wood pellet storage operations ceased there after the fire that destroyed the main warehouse, Brunswick Fire Chief Randy Mobley said.
Among the conditions, the OCI will deputize a Brunswick firefighter “as a State Fire Marshal to conduct random inspections to ensure compliance,” the report stated. Additionally, Logistec must immediately contact the Brunswick Fire Department at the first sign of a fire in its wood pellet warehouses in the future, the report states.
Logistec must also subdivide its warehouses into fireproof compartments that hold no more than 20,000 square feet of wood pellets, the fire marshal stated.
After a tour of existing facilities on June 2, state fire marshal investigators concluded that Logistec is not operating its wood pellet warehouses within standards of the International Fire Code and the National Fire Protection Association. Logistec was “operating under permits and supervision of the Georgia Ports Authority,” the report said.
The company will have six months after resuming operations to meet state and national industry standards for storing “combustible dust” that is a byproduct of storing wood pellets and peanut shells, the fire marshal’s office determined.
“A quick review of the storage facility confirmed that these warehouses do not meet IFC or NFPA standards to operate,” the report noted.
Brunswick Fire Chief Randy Mobley did not spare his criticism for Logistec’s fire safety practices, according to the report. “Chief Mobley was adamantly opposed to allowing operation under current conditions,” the report states.
Contacted Tuesday, Mobley said he has not yet seen State Fire Marshal Craig Landolt’s completed report. Mobley did say the fire likely would not have been so damaging had Logistec contacted the fire department sooner. The warehouse had a capacity for 50,000 tons of pellets. It was full when the fire occurred, Mobley said.
“We should have been called,” Mobley told The News. “If we would have been called sooner, they would probably still have a warehouse.”
And Mobley had seen this before. The older Logistec warehouses that were inspected June 2 were originally used to store “bulk paper,” the report said. They had been “repurposed” to store wood pellets.
However, the steel-framed aluminum warehouse destroyed in the inferno last month was relatively new, completed in October of 2016. It was to include state-of-the-art features, including interior water sprinklers and a vacuum system to contain combustible dust.
Logistic constructed that building to replace two 50,000-square-foot wood-framed warehouses that were consumed by flames in July of 2015. Numerous neighboring agencies responded to assist Brunswick firefighters with the initial firefight. Brunswick firefighters remained on scene guarding against smoldering flareups until September of that year.
Brunswick firefighters have since responded to smaller wood pellet fires at the new warehouse in 2017, 2018 and on Easter Day of 2019.
A stevedoring and shipping conglomerate based in Quebec, Logistec ships the wood pellets stored in Brunswick to European countries for use as biofuel in power plants. It also stores peanut shells here for use as livestock feed. The peanut shells and wood pellets are provided by Fram Renewable Fuels in Hazelhurst.
Logistec receives and ships about 1 million tons of wood pellets a year, company officials told inspectors. It ships about 40,000 tons of peanut shells.
Investigators determined that a Logistec “fire brigade” had spent a day trying to extinguish last month’s fire before it got out of hand. Brunswick firefighters were notified after the booming explosion of fire made the problem obvious at around 8 p.m. that night, the fire marshal’s report stated.
The Logsitec facility sits on port-leased property near Newcastle Street and 4th Avenue, a stone’s throw from neighborhood homes in Brunswick’s south end.
“The warehouse closely adjoins a residential neighborhood,” the report noted. “The fire grew rapidly dangerous to to the surrounding residences … Ultimately the fire grew out of control and caused a violent explosion.”
Brunswick firefighters and a host of neighboring agencies fought the fire through the night. The effort was greatly assisted by the Savannah Fire Department’s “trailer-mounted industrial submersible pump,” with which thousands of gallons of river water per minute were poured onto the fire.
A Brunswick firefighting detail remained on scene 24/7 until May 29.
To resume operations, Logistec must provide the Brunswick Fire Department with a trailer-mounted submersible pump or some other means of improving the water supply at the facility’s south end in case of future firefights, the fire marshal determined.
During the tour of facilities on June 2, Logistec safety manager Lynn Delassus told investigators that employees are trained to spot potential fires by the smells and “flower patterns” on the wood pellet piles. They carry carbon monoxide and methane monitors, he said.
Still, during the tour of Logistic warehouses, investigators spotted “several large piles of fine ‘cinnamon-like’ dust …. scattered around the hopper and conveyor system.”
According to the report, Logistec officials said they were satisfied with their fire safety practices. The fire marshal, and Mobley, concluded otherwise.
“Logistec managers downplayed the hazards associated with the storage of the pellets stating that they are generally safe and they follow all industry prescribed standards,” the report noted. “Chief Mobley stated this is the second major fire of wood pellets and they have had several other smaller responses by his fire department.”
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