Time to close the book on NAR fire, begin new chapter

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Two years ago at this time, motorists crawled and gawked as they traveled West Elk Avenue past the former North American Rayon Corp. A devastating fire which began around 4 a.m. Feb. 25, 2000, ravaged about 70 percent of this once magnificent, German-built monument to industry.
   During the fire, nearly 400 emergency workers were on the scene, Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse said at a disaster conference held in the aftermath. Those included 51 volunteer fire departments throughout the area as well as four paid departments.
   The quarterbacking session addressed numerous problems during the event, including keeping news media "from roaming around," lack of radio communication between emergency personnel and the command post set up to monitor them, the nightmare of accountability, improper marking of equipment among responding fire departments, and failure to let responders know exactly what chemicals were on hand.
   Two years ago yesterday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' National Response Team and the Tennessee Fire Marshal's Bomb and Arson Response Team were called in to investigate whether the fire resulted from a criminal act. Last year, ATF reported the case closed barring receipt of new information. Cause of the fire remains undetermined.
   Two employees working in the plant at the time the fire was discovered told Elizabethton Police they detected an odor which smelled like something burning. They searched the area but did not see anything out of the ordinary. Around 4 a.m., one of the workers turned and saw a large stack of cardboard engulfed in flames. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, pulled the pin and squeezed the lever, but nothing came out. He called 9-1-1 and left the building. From that point, the rest is a charred page in Carter County history.
   Now, it's time for another chapter, according to Charles Green, owner of North American Corp. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials agree.
   Cleanup of the fire-damaged area began in September 2000 and the majority completed by the end of March 2001. Ash and debris classified as hazardous waste due to lead contamination was trucked to Emelle, Ala., for disposal at Chemical Waste Management's Hazardous Waste Landfill. The asbestos hazard was abated. Non-hazardous debris and rubble was used to fill in empty basements which were then capped with asphalt.
   "They have done everything that needed to be done," said Jim Burrough of Carter County Emergency Management Agency. The building now used to warehouse swimming pool products, including a vast amount of chlorine, could present a hazard were there another fire, according to Burrough.
   Burrough said North American's Tier II report for this year, which gives an accounting of onsite chemicals in reportable quantities, is about half an inch thick. But North American is not the only facility in the county which has chemicals on hand that could present a problem in an emergency situation. Most industrial facilities, by nature, have chemicals of concern. However, as long as emergency personnel know what they might have to deal with, the threat of harm to the surrounding population is diminished.
   North American, meanwhile, is addressing final cleanup.
   Chris Lamb of TDEC's Division of Solid Waste Management visited the site in September 2001 along with another member of the division, at NAC's request.
   "They wanted to decommission some of the wastewater treatment plant structures on their property. Their request was whether or not they could just fill the basins with clean soil and dirt and leave them in place," Lamb said.
   After review, the division approved the request. An old clarifier, a viscose acidification basin, a premix basin, alkaline basin and alkaline pit, all primarily below-grade reinforced concrete structures, were examined.
   "They had taken two samples per structure and ran some analyses on them to show that they were clean and based on those results we granted them approval to decommission the facilities," Lamb said.
   Larry Gilliam, director of the division, said, "We put them under a groundwater monitoring program and, thus far, the data that has been generated has not shown any surprises.
   "All of the groundwater tends to flow toward the (Watauga) River and we've got those (monitoring wells) located in such a manner that we should be able to see if we've got a release leaving that's leaving the site. We haven't seen concentrations of anything that's really of any real consequence," Gilliam said.
   Since cleanup, the site is beginning to look like prime commercial property and a number of parties interested in redevelopment have approached North American Fibers.
   Representatives from Site Infrastructure Transportation Engineers and Soils and Materials Engineers of Knoxville both have been in talks with TDEC on behalf of Wal-Mart, which is exploring the site for a SuperCenter. According to conceptual drawings dated Nov. 19, 1999, and submitted to the state, the proposed SuperCenter would encompass approximately 26.45 acres.
   The state also has been approached by parties interested in turning the former powerhouse into a plasma incinerator which would burn waste tires, according to TDEC.
   North American's owner, Green, said the company's insurance paid to clean up facilities damaged by the fire, then North American "took down four additional buildings over and above the buildings that were damaged. We had funding that we were able to utilize in cleaning up the other."
   Green said it is hoped that the cleanup will "entice someone else to maybe look at utilizing the property for some other source." He has not heard further from Wal-Mart. "They're still, I guess, doing their due diligence as far as I know."
   However, the company also has been approached by parties interested in building a natural gas facility. "They came, they looked, and I understand they're doing the due diligence as well. Hopefully that might work. If it would, it would employ 150-200 people based on what they were telling one of my guys," he said.
   "I understood they were going to generate power using natural gas. I guess they would somehow or other wield power to other sources somewhere in other parts of the country where they would pay higher rates, I would assume. They didn't discuss their plans, per se, they were just coming and looking to see what was available.
   "I think they may have been representing someone else but they didn't feel inclined to discuss it at the time. Before they actually would be able to do anything, naturally they would have to disclose the parties and what they were doing, but it's still preliminary."
   Green said he recently attended an economic development strategic planning session which focused on what the area would look like in 2025.
   "My biggest concern is we've lost quite a bit of industry and ... we're going to lose more unless we get a professional approach on trying to attract industry," he said.
   "Somebody said, 'Well, we are a bedroom community to Johnson City.' While that certainly is true, people build in Carter County and work somewhere else ... most of the people don't shop in town. They go to Johnson City to shop," thus spending their sales tax dollars out of county.
   "We're going to have to come up with some strategic plan and one of the things we need is some professional approach on how to go about tracking businesses and industry in order to have a tax base. Otherwise, if you look at the stats -- and these are not my stats, they were coming from the state of Tennessee -- we're basically looking at negative growth in the next 20 to 25 years," Green said.
   He believes the North American fire is "pretty well talked to death," and the news media's time would be better spent putting "emphasis on trying to come up with something that would encourage the authorities to try to establish a strategic plan and some overall basis on how we're going to improve our tax base.
   "Beating a dead horse is not going to do any good," Green said.