State Moves to Help Businesses, Workers Affected by WRJ Fire

  • Crews works at the site of a fire that destroyed three buildings in a White River Junction, Vt., industrial park near Ratcliffe Park on February 28, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2017 12:10:46 AM
Modified: 3/2/2017 12:10:55 AM

White River Junction— As firefighters put out the last hot embers of an industrial park fire on Wednesday, state and town officials swung into action in an effort to help an estimated 30 to 40 employees directly affected by the disaster.

At this point, those employees are “still dealing with the shock factor,” said Barbara Smith, regional manager for the Vermont Department of Labor, which is hosting a meeting this morning to help connect the workers and business owners to aid.

“It’s very tough,” Smith said Wednesday. “We spend more time at work than we do in our homes during the week. They can go through a real grieving process.”

Smith said the department typically hosts anywhere from one to four such “dislocation or rapid response events” each week, to help people across the state who are facing layoffs, closures or, as in this case, a disaster.

Tuesday’s early-morning fire destroyed three of the six buildings on the 8.5-acre parcel owned by White River Investment Properties in the Nutt Lane neighborhood.

Because the destroyed office space, garage and factory were rented by a variety of entities for multiple purposes, it’s difficult to say exactly how many businesses were affected, and to what extent.

Smith said the department has reached out to about nine companies, and Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar said the town was working from a list of six companies, including Teddy’s Lawn Care and Landscaping Services, White River Traffic Group, Agfa Graphics, Argent Communications and Green Mountain Power.

The largest single employee group seemed to be about a dozen workers from Solaflect, which used the factory space to manufacture solar panels.

“We’re trying to reach out and help where we can,” Pullar said on Wednesday. He said that Big Fatty’s BBQ, a nearby restaurant, provided a free meal to the affected people, while the Freight House on nearby South Main Street was offering free temporary space for employees to gather and store things over the next week or so.

Smith said that, when the regular flow of paychecks to a group of employees halts, there can be a ripple effect on the broader community. She cited a decline in the granite industry in Barre, Vt., in which local eateries felt the pinch because there were fewer patrons at lunch counters.

While the impact in Barre was slow and insidious, the high visibility and suddenness of the fire gives the community more of an opportunity to intervene, she said.

Today’s event is scheduled for 11 this morning on the third floor of the state office building at 118 Prospect St., where staff from various agencies will help connect workers and businesses with resources ranging from health insurance, unemployment benefits to possible offers of new short-term employment from the private sector.

“There’s a lot of good people in Vermont,” she said.

Pullar also sent out an assurance to White River Junction residents who on Tuesday were disturbed to find that tap water drawn from the municipal water system had turned temporarily brown.

“It’s brown. But it’s safe,” Pullar said. “You don’t need to boil it.”

He said the coloring was the result of sediment stirred up when firefighters drew on hydrants to combat the flames.

At the fire scene on Wednesday morning, the Hartford Fire Department was planning to leave the site, where the flames had finally subsided to a few warm spots in the rubble. Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney said the state investigators found that the fire had begun near the rear of the truck garage, but they were unable to determine the specific cause.

A team of insurance investigators were clustered around the spot with co-owner Kenny Keith Wednesday morning, picking through the debris for a more definitive answer about what started the blaze.

State environmental officials said that the cleanup is ongoing for oil and other hazardous materials that were released during the fire.

“In general, we’re looking to assess any releases of hazardous material, and taking proper steps to make sure there’s no impact on human health or the environment,” said Marc Roy, section chief of the Hazardous Waste Management Program of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Roy said that, while there were areas where a petroleum sheen had formed on water from the firefighting efforts, the land was sloped away from the neighboring Connecticut River, lessening chances of contamination of the water.

On the day of the fire, Keith hired a professional company to clean up the site, primarily by digging out contaminated soil and snow, and carting it away to be treated.

Roy said that any toxic materials released into the air during the fire would have been quickly dispersed by local weather conditions. Generally, he said, local fire authorities make a determination as to whether such materials pose an immediate hazard, as with a poisonous cloud of ammonia. Emissions that don’t match that description are generally not monitored for long-term health effects, he said.

Mike Nucci, a member of the department’s spill response team, said that part of the long-term cleanup will be making sure that a batch of 55-gallon drums that survived the fire had their contents safely transferred to new containers.

“We’re leery if they’ve been through a fire,” Nucci said. “We often will just repack those.”

He estimated that there were roughly 15 to 20 such drums, and that he assumed most of them contained waste oil for the garage’s heating system.

Smith said that fire-affected employees unable to attend today’s meeting can contact the labor department offices on Prospect Street.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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