AERT Chairman After Fires: “Combustion” Can Be Normal

As employees worked to tear down a silo Friday at a Lowell recycling facility that caught fire twice the day before, the company’s chairman assured the public that such fires can be normal in the summer heat.

A fire at a separate Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies plant in Springdale killed a worker last week and caused another to be airlifted to a Springfield, Mo., burn center. A third worker was temporarily hospitalized, but was released the same day.

AERT’s chairman and CEO, Joe Brooks, addressed the media and the public Friday, saying that while fires can be common at the plants, deaths are rare and workers are mostly safe. Last week’s death was the first in the company’s 25 years in existence, Brooks said.

“We have been doing this for 25 years, and unfortunately there is nothing good to say about what happened out there. But 25 years, and you have a fatality,” Brooks said. “Only one. It’s bad. Well, one is too many, but it’s a bad deal.”

Officials had planned to demolish the silo in which two fires flared up Thursday, but AERT opted instead to disassemble the silo because of how close it was to nearby structures. The company began disassembling the silo Friday and expects to finish Saturday.

“We get into the summer, we get a little bit of combustion,” Brooks said.

The three fires at the two plants over the last 10 days caught the eye of federal investigators. Officials with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administrators told 5NEWS on Thursday the agency is investigating the fires at both plants.

AERT’s Springdale site has been investigated by OSHA four times since 2008, with inspectors finding eight violations. Investigators found five violations at the Lowell location in two investigations in 2006, according to OSHA inspection records.

The violations at the two facilities have cost the company $32,200 in OSHA fines.

Local firefighters responded to Thursday’s first fire at 7:18 a.m. at the AERT site, but no injuries were reported. That fire happened when an explosion blew the top off of a silo, according to the Lowell Fire Department.

“My dog jumped three feet in the air straight from a laying position, and we ran outside to see what had happened”, said Debbie Neece, a neighbor.

The fire from earlier in the day re-ignited into a separate fire in the same silo in the afternoon at 3:50 p.m., according to a statement from AERT. Officers blocked off Lincoln Street, but resumed traffic at about 5:30 p.m.

Crews with the Lowell Fire Department responded to the second fire and used three hoses to spray down the silo, firefighters said. No one was injured in the second fire, either.

Living so close to the plant, Neece said she is concerned for the future.

“I would just like to see more than just OSHA investigation. I want an in-depth investigation, out of safety for the workers,” she said. “And I am concerned about their work environment, but also for our residential area.”

AERT released a statement Thursday, saying:

“AERT experienced a silo rupture at 7:18 am at its Lowell, AR plastic recycling facility where the roof panels popped off, as designed, due to pressure build up in the plastic silo. Lowell fire and company officials were on site and the Lowell fire department responded, initially secured the area, and extinguished the material inside the silo at approximately 12:00 pm. At 3:50 pm the material reignited and Lowell Fire Department returned and extinguished the fire.
The Lowell plant was evacuated as a safety precaution and will resume normal operations shortly. There were no injuries related to this incident. The company will disassemble the silo, remove the material, and make appropriate repairs and safety inspections.
Additional information will be forth coming once the silo is inspected.”

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