In Holyoke, Plumes Of Orange Smoke Worry Residents

Aug 10, 2018

Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is asking environmental regulators to step up their oversight of the Sullivan Metals scrap metal facility on Appleton Street. This comes as neighbors of the scrapyard have complained of orange smoke coming from the facility in recent weeks.

In videos taken by Holyoke residents a few weeks ago and again this week, smoke plumed from the scrapyard. At least one video was posted to social media and others were shared with city officials and NEPR.

Multiple residents called in complaints to the city on the morning of July 17, and again the following week, reporting of orange smoke rising from Sullivan. Concerned that city officials had not acted, at least one resident also contacted the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to emails released by the city.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection inspected the site, with the state's findings reported to city officials by an EPA official, Natalie McClaine.

"The reported yellow cloud was most likely from the large cast iron items [that] were being cut where acetylene was being used," McClaine wrote in the report. "This was a visual inspection and no reported air monitoring took place."

The response appeared to infuriate Holyoke's director of planning and economic development, Marcos Marrero. In an email chain with other city officials, he wrote:

We have an elementary school and several homes across the street from there, we owe it to them and every abutting resident and business make sure those releases don't continue happening.

More reports in August

While Morse's staff worked on a letter to the EPA requesting further testing, another situation developed at the Sullivan site on Tuesday, August 7.

In the email chain with city officials, Marrero wrote:

Two Fire Trucks been dousing the place with water for a while, all the time a crane keeps operating. I can't tell what's actually going on, but red, white and black smoke is coming up at different times.

Brian Fitzgerald from Holyoke's health department went to the site to see what was going on. He met with a fire captain, and emailed city officials with an update.

Fitzgerald said the smoke on August 7 had a different cause than the smoke in July. From his email:

Sullivan accepted a load of material, mostly screws and small pieces of metal that had been smouldering [sic] for several days. Apparently this material was rejected at another facility due to the consistent smouldering. This could be caused by machine and cutting oil that can saturate these kinds of materials. Coupled with high heat days, material like this can spontaneously combust. From what we gathered from [the fire official] this material, a pile about 10 feet high, did eventually combust and caused a fire. Much of the dark colored material you saw in the air is particulate matter, like rust, powdered material and dust that was stirred up.

Morse sends letter of concern

The day the metal spontaneously combusted, August 7, Morse's letter went off to the EPA. (Read it below. It's dated August 6, but references the August 7 fire.) 

In it, Morse "express[ed] concern" that the state regulators' inspection was only visual and did not include air testing. He also questioned whether state and federal regulators had reviewed a video posted to social media of the smoke in July.

He requested regulators "conduct appropriate air monitoring to ensure the facility operations are not exposing abutting residents to substandard air quality."

Morse's letter also noted city officials had learned of "numerous recent containment discharge violations of effluent benchmarks indicating violations of the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

Letter from Holyoke mayor to EPA by New England Public Radio on Scribd

"Based on related non-compliance and the nature of complaints received, the incident cited in the complaint does not appear to be an isolated incident," Morse wrote, with a footnote referencing the "smoke cloud" visible that same day from the City Hall annex.

Sullivan Metals responds

In an interview Wednesday, August 8, Sullivan Metals Vice President Brian Powell acknowledged the company is "not perfect," but said some of the complaints leveled by Morse and area residents were news to him.

Powell said he had not seen the letter from Morse until NEPR asked for comment.

"Nobody called here and said, 'What are you boneheads doing?'" Powell said. "We can't act on concerns we don't know about."

But some concerns Sullivan Metals did know about.

The smoke in July, Powell said, was not the result of an accident or unusual event. He said during the year, Sullivan accumulates oversized steel scrap, and usually hires an outside company in July and December to "torch cut this stuff."

This time, they got complaints about the smoke and voluntarily made the decision in late July to permanently stop cutting on-site. Powell said no one’s health was in danger (“It’s just steel,” he said), but the company will now sell the large scrap to another company. He said it will mean less profit.

"We made the decision that the attention we were getting... just wasn't a good look for us," Powell said. "It wasn't something that I wanted people to associate with our company. It's not worth it."

As for the fire on August 7, Powell's description matched that in emails among city officials.

Spontaneous combustion of the fine scrap material, called steel turnings, "can happen from time to time," he said. "We're very careful about how much we store so our exposure is limited."

Powell said his workers did the right thing by calling the fire department when they noticed the material became very hot. He said he can only remember a handful of fires over 20 years working at Sullivan.

"Unfortunately, we had a cluster of events that happened all at the same time and they're not related," he said.

In the interview, Powell offered to host monthly community meetings with the scrapyard's neighbors to hear their concerns.

As for Morse's comment about water pollution, Powell said the EPA is aware the company is in the midst of a multi-phase construction project to meet requirements. He said Sullivan Metals has hired an environmental consultant and a local excavating company, and expects the project to be completed in the next two years.

"We're spending a lot of money," Powell said.

Little comment from regulators

A spokesman for the EPA's Boston office, John Senn, said the agency shared the initial complaint from a Holyoke resident with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, as they are "the lead responder on most air pollution incidents."

"EPA is working closely with [the state] to investigate and address the citizen’s inquiry and the broader issues about the facility raised in the mayor’s letter," Senn wrote in an email to NEPR. "EPA will provide regular updates to the mayor’s office as we get additional information."

When contacted for comment, a MassDEP state official said the agency had not previously seen Morse's letter.

"The letter was not sent to MassDEP, so now that we’ve received a copy of it, we plan to review it and respond to it as necessary," wrote spokesman Ed Coletta in an email to NEPR. "But we’ll have no further comment on it at this time."

Regulators aren't the only parties to these complaints who were reluctant to comment.

Asked for information on August 7 about the smoke, Rory Casey, Morse's chief of staff, provided NEPR with the letter and emails among city officials. But we heard nothing the next day after asking by email and phone message for a taped interview.

And while Powell offered extensive comments over two phone calls, he declined to be recorded.

Several residents themselves, concerned about backlash, also opted not to comment. Their identities are included on complaint forms the city sent to the EPA, but NEPR is not publishing their names here.