Plant manager: too early to tell if we'll rebuild after fire

Smoke continues to fill the sky the day after the fire at the Agrium Plant in Hartsville. This picture was taken just after 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. / Ryan Naquin

As firefighters monitor the smoldering fire that destroyed the Agrium US Fertilizer Plant in Hartsville Monday night, the state Department of Health has set up an air quality monitoring system.

There were seven workers inside the 160,000 square foot plant (we were previously told by the city that the plant was 50,000 square feet) when a fire started in the break room around 6:47 p.m. Officials have not said exactly what started the fire. Workers told us one of them tried to put the fire out, but it spread too quickly. All seven workers escaped the fire unharmed. In addition to the Agrium plant, part of Sonoco's Wood Burning Yard caught fire. The plant is off of North 5th Street across the lake from the Sonoco plant, bordering Lake Prestwood.

Tuesday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control set up seven air quality monitors around the plant site. Two of the monitors are near child care centers. So far, DHEC says they've found no hazardous chemicals detected in the smoke. The Environmental Protection Agency has set up yellow containment booms around Lake Prestwood. The booms look like big water hoses. They hold any runoff going into the lake from firefighting efforts. EPA is testing water inside of booms, but says so far no harmful chemicals have been found.

The fire is still burning as of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. The smoke rising from the site changes from brown to yellow to white. Jim Beasley, with DHEC, says the brown smoke is from the wood burning in the structure, the yellow is an indication of chemicals, and the white smoke is harmless. Even though the smoke is not posing a threat to public health, DHEC officials will remain on scene to continue testing. The plant contained nitrogen-based fertilizer, sulfur, and a phosphate-based fertilizer.

Firefighters say they'll be battling the fire for at least another two days.

James Only, the plant manager, says the warehouse, a 160,000 square foot main building, burned along with two smaller buildings. He says some of the employees are working as liaisons to help supply information to response agencies. At this point, he's not saying whether the plant will be rebuilt, just that they're focused on getting the fire out.

Robert Long, with the Darlington County Economic Development Partnership, says they plan on having three town hall meetings for the employees to help them look for work. He suggests the employees apply for unemployment benefits immediately. Paul Poister is Agrium's Government Relations Manager, who arrived in Hartsville from Denver. He said historically when Agrium has temporary shutdowns like these, they still paid the employees. But Poister couldn't positively say that's what would happen in this case. He says it's still too early to tell.

The City of Hartsville has reopened all the streets that were closed Monday night, with the exception of Society Avenue where it meets North 5th Street past the plant to Old Ruby Road. That's about a one block area. Emergency crews still ask that you avoid the area.

Several surrounding neighborhoods were evacuated shortly after the fire started, including the Alphabet Hill area. The Pee Dee Chapter of the American Red Cross opened a shelter at TB Thomas Sports Center. We're told 73 people took advantage of the shelter. It closed at 7 a.m. Tuesday when residents were allowed to return to their homes. Pee Dee Red Cross spokesperson, Linda Boone-Smith, said volunteers at the shelter had experience from working disasters like Katrina and the 2009 Horry County wildfire. Smith said almost 400 meals were served to evacuees and emergency workers. "The chapter would like to thank Wal-Mart of Hartsville, Sonic, McDonalds, Bojangles, and Little Caesar's Pizza for agreeing to help when contacted at closing time! It is really important that people understand the urgency of the assistance the American Red Cross provides," Linda said.

Stay with NewsChannel 15 and for updates throughout the day.

Watch viewer video of the plant burning.