After two days, the enormous fire at the Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem is still burning, forcing the evacuation of more than 6,000 people within a mile radius of the 80-year-old facility. Because of the risk of explosion, firefighters can’t extinguish the blaze; nor can they yet determine the cause of the fire.
“On Monday night this had the potential to be the worst [ammonium nitrate] incident in U.S. history,” Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said at a Wednesday press conference.
But regardless of the cause, several legal loopholes allowed a plant to store 600 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate — which “has a history of being unpredictable,” Mayo said — without a sprinkler system in place. And stored in a building just 750 feet from a residential area. For context, 600 tons is nearly three times the amount that exploded in Texas in 2013, which killed 15 people and damaged 200 homes.
North Carolina Building Code stipulates that buildings must comply with the code that was effective when the structure was built. In the case of Weaver Fertilizer, the 1936 code applied to four of the five buildings. Not until 1953 were sprinklers required, and even then only for buildings two stories or higher, even if they stored combustible materials. Weaver Fertilizer is just one story.
Charlie Johnson of the NC Department of Insurance and the point person on fire code interpretations, told Policy Watch via email that the plant renovations, which occurred in 1963, would have been regulated under the 1953 code.
Even the office, where people would be working, was exempt from current sprinkler requirements because it is less than 3,000 square feet, Johnson said.
(In 2015, a study by the Fire Protection Study Foundation noted the code gaps in dealing with hazardous materials and processes.)
While the plant is in an industrial zone, just 750 feet away the land is designated as residential, high-density single-family homes. Some homes were built in the late 1920s, before the plant, but most houses came after, in the 1940s through the 1980s, according to property records. More than two-thirds of residents within a half-mile of the plant are renters, according to 2018 data in the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool. (This radius doesn’t include Wake Forest student housing.)
“It’s been inspected. It’s operating as safely as possible,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines on Wednesday. “There’s no legal way we could force them to move.”
In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon for houses to be built near industrial areas, especially for workers of those plants. Then a familiar pattern begins: As years pass, people with means move from these neighborhoods. Low-wealth and persons of color, who historically have fewer options, move in. (The Tarheel Army Missile Plant in Burlington is another example of this pattern; groundwater in that neighborhood — composed of Black, Latinx and Native American families — is now contaminated. East Durham, a largely Black community, is home to concrete plants, a chemical distribution facility, Brenntag, and other industries.)
Weaver Fertilizer has not been cited for violations, according to DEQ records. However, the facility was deemed non-compliant with its stormwater permit in 2017 — a problem that was “ongoing,” state documents read. Inspectors saw “hydrocarbon sheens” — basically the rainbow pattern on the surface of gasoline — entering the stormwater system, which is illegal. Dust from ammonium sulfate — a non-hazardous food additive that is different from ammonium nitrate — was also entering the stormwater system. That water eventually enters Monarcas Creek.
Here are some facts about the neighborhood and the plant, taken from public document sources:
4440 N. Cherry St., Winston-Salem
Land — 8.08 acres
Buildings 1 and 3
- Use and construction: storage/warehouses, one story with a wood exterior, listed in fair condition (for tax depreciation purposes)
- 47,790 square feet
- Unheated, uninsulated, no sprinkler system
- Year built, 1939, remodeled in 1963
- Use and construction: storage/warehouse, one story, metal, listed in fair condition (for tax depreciation purposes)
- 6,313 square feet
- Unheated, uninsulated, property card does not list whether sprinklers are installed
- Built 1946
- Use and construction: office, one story, brick veneer, listed in fair condition (for tax depreciation purposes)
- 2,080 square feet
- Heat pump, no insulation, no sprinklers
- Built 1950
- Use and construction: storage/warehouse, one story, steel construction, listed in fair condition (for tax depreciation purposes)
- 9,240 square feet
- Unheated, uninsulated, no sprinkler system
- Built 1974
Source: Forsyth County tax parcel viewer
The parcel is classified as General Industrial. From the City of Winston-Salem Unified Development Ordinance, a GI designation is “primarily intended to accommodate a wide range of assembling, fabricating, and manufacturing activities. The district is established for the purpose of designating appropriate locations and establishing development regulations for uses which may have significant environmental impacts or which require special measures to ensure compatibility with adjoining properties.”
The most recent tax bill, combining Forsyth and Winston-Salem assessments, was $16,789.37. It has been paid in full, according to the county tax assessor.
The neighborhood — largely nonwhite and low-income, an environmental justice community
(Sources: NCDEQ Community Mapping System, EPA Environmental Justice Screen)
Three census blocks adjoin the fertilizer plant:
- Immediately to the east, the block is home to 2,214 people: 95% are persons of color and 70.6% are low-income.
- To the south, 1.526 people live in that census block: 80% are persons of color, 86.7% are low-income.
- The southwestern block that abuts the plant has 2,226 people: 81.2% are persons of color, 90.6% low-income.
- The block that includes the plant itself is home to 1,778 people: 93% are persons of color, 40% low-income.
Other environmental hazards in this neighborhood: One landfill, seven hazardous waste sites (both active and inactive), 50 aboveground and underground petroleum storage tank incidents, 14 land use restrictions
The census blocks adjoining the fertilizer plant have been designated as Potentially Underserved Communities by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, based on criteria adopted by the agency in 2020. (The block including the plant is not designated as such.)
This is the criteria, which is quite rigorous: Share of nonwhites and Hispanic or Latino (of any race) is over 50% or share of nonwhites and Hispanic or Latino (of any race) is at least 10% higher than the county or state share — and the share of population experiencing poverty is over 20% and share of households in poverty is at least 5% higher than the county or state share.
Health outcomes: All four census blocks have higher rates than the state average of cancer, asthma hospitalizations, pre-term births, child mortality and infant death.
The original aerial photo map in this story was labeled incorrectly; the new map has been corrected.