Fertilizer plant fire leaves workers wondering what's next

By Jody Barr - email

HARTSVILLE, SC (WIS) - Smoke hangs in the air above Hartsville as crews continue to work the scene of a fertilizer plant fire.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control is back on the scene, and has placed four air quality monitors around Hartsville. The move is in reaction to the color change in the smoke coming from Agrium's Rainbow fertilizer plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency is handling water testing in the area.

Meanwhile, plant workers who are trying to figure out what they're going to do next. "I ain't got no job," said Johnny Blakney. "That's what went through my mind."

Blakney spent the past 42 years of his life bagging fertilizer at the plant. He got the news from a store clerk Monday night. "I stopped by the store up there -- Foxes' Corner -- last night and the owner of the store asked me what happened to the mill," recounted Blakney. "I say, 'what you mean?' And, he said 'the mill is burned.' I said, 'that's the first I heard of that, I'm going to ride that way.'"

Blakney stopped at the 5th Street bridge where police and emergency crews held the public back. "I couldn't get no further than the bridge there," said Blakney. "I ain't seen nothing but fire, big blaze."

Fire officials think the fire started near an employee break room Monday night. There were fewer than 10 people working at the time.

Everyone got out safely, but it took only a matter of hours for the plant that has stood as part of Hartsville's economic base for decades to fall to the ground, surrounded by flames.
The EPA spent several hours after the fire, taking water samples and securing a floating barriers to trap any contaminants that could have spilled over into Prestwood lake. "Anytime you have smoke in the air, we want to at least determine what it is and whether it's okay to be breathing," said an EPA spokesman.

DHEC returned to the scene early Monday morning after the color of the smoke changed. That change, according to health officials, could have signaled a problem.

"There was nothing to indicate any danger, but nonetheless, we just always want to be sure," said a DHEC spokesman. "We're doing this as a precaution. We're working in conjunction with the county, as well as the sheriff's department. We're going to do everything that we can to monitor it and make sure that it remains as safe as it can be for this area."

State and county investigators are working to figure out how the fire started and why. But for johnny Blakney and the plant's day shift, that's a fact that really doesn't matter to them right now. "I worked there off and on for about 42 years," said Blakney. "It's been a big part of my life."

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