Omaha chemical fire update: Residents gather to hear details, ask questions

The company where the fire ignited declined officials’ invitation to public info meeting, saying it would respond after the fire investigation concludes.
Community members had the opportunity tonight to confront city and county officials about the fire response.
Published: Jun. 1, 2022 at 6:00 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Neighbors of the chemical plant north of 20th and Martha streets that caught fire over the holiday weekend gathered Wednesday evening to hear the latest details from Omaha and Douglas County officials.

The meeting was held at local venue The Berkley but had an interactive component as well to allow community members who couldn’t attend a chance to ask their questions online by either participating in the Zoom call or Facebook livestream.

TONIGHT: please note the updated livestream options on Facebook and Zoom for anyone who cannot attend in person.

Posted by Douglas County Nebraska on Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse and Douglas County Commissioner Robert Garcia led the update with Omaha Fire, Police, and Public Works officials sharing information, as well as Metropolitan Utilities District, Douglas County Emergency Management, and county commissioners.

“There’s a big difference between just getting a press release that you may or may not see online and actually being able to talk to a representative from respective jurisdictions,” Garcia tells 6 News.

Residents were able to hear about the details of the events following the fire, from evacuation orders and alerts to the opening of a center for those who were displaced. Some called for a task force to evaluate the response and related protocols.

Officials said Nox-Crete was invited to participate in the meeting on Wednesday but declined, saying they were awaiting the results of the investigation before making public statements.

Fire investigators are still working to learn what caused the massive fire as officials continue to monitor both the air and the water full of chemicals running into the sewer. Officials reiterated Wednesday night that all the city’s drinking water treatment facilities remained online during the fire, and continue to test water quality, not unlike they do during normal operations. The oil sheen that was observed was downstream of the drinking water intakes, officials said.

Experts have recommended that anyone experiencing dizziness or a headache — or eye, ear, nose, throat, lungs irritation — who may have been exposed to the fumes from the chemical fire at Nox-Crete Manufacturing should see their doctor right away.

Dr. Huse noted Wednesday that they would look into offering free clinics to assist those without healthcare, advising those needing assistance to reach out to One World and Charles Drew centers.

One member of the public said Wednesday night, however, that she was concerned about potential fertility concerns, particularly in reference to Tier II chemicals, and that her physician hadn’t been made aware of the fire when she sought advice about her concerns.

Dr. Huse said that the health department had sent a Health Action Network release on Wednesday notifying local medical community about what was known, but said that more information is needed about the specific chemicals and amounts to have a better understanding of potential dosing, impacts, and symptoms before health officials can have a better understanding of potential long-term ramifications.

According to paperwork filed with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, the company reported 89 types of chemicals it keeps on-site, most of them flammable. Tuesday morning, the Nebraska Regional Poison Center said it wasn’t yet known what chemicals were involved, but paperwork filed Tuesday with the state indicated the fire involved large quantities of acids, bases, and solvents, impacting the air, land, and water.

Many residents were concerned about the impact of the chemicals on their homes near the site.

“Can I harvest the lettuce? Can I harvest the kale? Cause those things were up and they would have come into contact with the smoke,” said one resident.

The NDEE says it is running tests, including soil test, but results won’t be in for at least two weeks.

“We have requested federal assistance from EPA, they’re here today doing recon, and developing a sampling strategy, they’ve also mobilized their contractor to assist with sampling, we don’t know what that sampling will look like,” said the NDEE representative on Wednesday.

Some residents questioned why the fire department used water instead of C02 to extinguish the flames.

“I cannot understand, why a fire department with a city that has as many industrial facilities as Omaha, does not have access to C02,″ one resident said.

Omaha Fire officials said they weren’t aware exactly what chemicals were at the site that ignited, but said firefighters don’t carry carbon dioxide to suppress chemical flames. Instead, they used 875 gallons of foam — and it didn’t successfully extinguish the fire. Fire crews aren’t able to look up specific information about chemicals on site while at the scene.

Councilman Danny Begley noted that several people lost their jobs as a result of the fire, and pointed to jobs available on the city’s website. Councilwoman Juanita Johnson said she would advocate for an environmental action plan for the city.

Several residents expressed concern about communication pitfalls during the fire.

“Multiple organizations can’t figure out how to communicate and I don’t understand what it is,” said another resident.

Some indicated the geolocated alerts didn’t get to everyone they should have and others asking why alerts weren’t sent out in Spanish. The city made contact with the vendor for its alerts to make sure that future emergency messages will be sent out in Spanish as well. The alert system isn’t capable of voice messaging, officials said, adding that it would likely be a considerable cost to the city to add that feature.

“As a person who was evacuated, we received no all clear, so we evacuated but we didn’t know when it was safe to return home,” one resident told the emergency management officials at the meeting.

“The boundaries for the evacuation area, could have been better. Agreed,” said Assistant Fire Chief Kathy Bossman.

One community member expressed frustration that multilingual alerts weren’t sent out to an area known to house several who don’t speak English. Another criticized Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert for not being present as the community continues to deal with the aftermath of the chemical fire.

“If this happened out west, would the mayor be here?” he asked. Several attending the meeting cheered in response.

Watch the live stream of the community meeting:

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