Fires have become distressingly common at recycling and solid waste facilities this decade, causing fire prevention efforts to become top of mind for today’s plant managers and executives.
The leaders of San Carlos, California-based Rethink Waste are all too familiar with this phenomenon, having survived a blaze that tore through its materials recovery facility (MRF) two years ago.
Rethink Waste Executive Director Joe La Mariana says he has gotten a new perspective in the aftermath of the fire, pushing the organization to advocate for what it considers critical policy changes.
Catastrophic but pre-considered
Rethink Waste, which describes itself as a joint powers authority of 12 public agencies in San Mateo County, California, provides waste handling and recycling services to much of the area.
A considerable percentage of the authority’s activity takes place at the Shoreway Environmental Center, a municipal solid waste (MSW) transfer station and MRF in San Carlos operated by South Bay Recycling (SBR). Hauling services are provided by San Francisco-based Recology.
The 70,000-square-foot Shoreway facility opened in May 2011 and was initially permitted to handle some 3,000 tons per day of MSW, dry recyclables and organics (food scrap and yard waste).
In September 2016, five years after opening, the Shoreway Environmental Center was struck by a devastating fire that brought its operations to a halt. The fire occurred just five weeks into the tenure of La Mariana, who says the incident served as something a bit too close to a literal baptism by fire.
La Mariana credits planning and preparation put in place by his predecessors as having prevented an even greater catastrophe. No one was physically hurt during the fire, he says, thanks to a trained staff that “executed the evacuation protocol to a T.”
While the four-alarm fire, which required the response of some 100 firefighters, destroyed nearly all the equipment within the MRF, La Mariana says structural damage was prevented by a key building design decision. During the fire, “special heat-activated vents opened and channeled flames upward in a chimney effect, instead of having flames spreading within the interior of the structure.”
La Mariana credits Rethink Waste Senior Facilities and Contracts Manager Hilary Gans for both applying his own knowledge as an engineer and considering information supplied by contractors and vendors to make what turned out to be a key money-saving decision to install the vents. Adds La Mariana, “Those vents were a godsend and saved us from redoing so much structural work.”
Nonetheless, “We had to rebuild all the electrical systems—they all got fried—and all the processing equipment for both the commercial and residential sorting lines, which combined handle some 50 tons per hour, had to be replaced,” he says.
Gans then led what La Mariana calls the “orchestrated” effort to repair and re-equip the Shoreway Environmental Center from September 2016 until its reopening in February 2017.
La Mariana has a long list of people and companies that helped Rethink Waste through that five-month recovery period, including Gans and other Rethink Waste staff members; SBR staff members, including General Manager Dwight Herring; Eugene, Oregon-based equipment provider Bulk Handling Systems (BHS); insurance adjusters who responded promptly; and operators of other area MSW transfer stations and recycling plants that agreed to accept material that could no longer be routed to the Shoreway facility.
By early February 2017, Rethink Waste and SBR were ready to reopen the center, some three months ahead of the initially established timetable.
The negative consequences of the fire included the furloughing of some 40 workers between September 2016 and late January 2017. “They were hit hard during the holidays, and that was awful. There was a human cost on that level,” La Mariana says.
Longer term, La Mariana has been confronted with property insurance hikes and other hardships, including what to do about the likely cause of the fire—lithium-ion battery disposal—that he sees becoming an issue of intense interest to the wider industry.
Cause and effects
La Mariana says neither the fire marshal’s office nor insurance investigators identified an official cause of the September 2016 fire. However, he says, investigators “seem to think it could have been a lithium-ion battery.” He also says Rethink Waste has a closed-circuit video clip that shows the fire “starting in the throat of a polishing screen [which separates fiber from containers]. It has the characteristics of a lithium-ion battery [as the cause].”
The likelihood of a lithium-ion battery being the cause puts Rethink Waste on an expanding roster of waste and recycling plants that have suffered fire damage because of these discarded rechargeable batteries. This growing source of plant fires has been highlighted by the insurance industry as a substantial problem, says La Mariana.
He praises Massachusetts-based Hanover Insurance Group, which provided coverage to Rethink Waste in 2016, for its responsiveness and willingness to pay claims pertaining not only to re-equipping the plant, but also to help cover the significant costs of diverting material to other facilities during the rebuilding phase. “Hanover Insurance did a great job of working with us to mitigate the situation and even make advance payments to get things back up and running,” La Mariana says.
However, not long after paying the claims, the insurance company “fired us,” says La Mariana, “and Hanover said they are getting out of the [waste and recycling] sector entirely.”
Finding a company to replace Hanover as a sole carrier proved fruitless, says La Mariana. “We now have seven companies insuring us—no one carrier wanted to take the full risk.” Rethink Waste’s coverage is now divided into four tiers, that combined, provide the $60 million in coverage needed for the facility and its equipment.
“That is a signal to this industry that it is a problem,” La Mariana says of Rethink Waste’s post-incident insurance experience. “I’ve been told if we have a second incident, it will really be hard to find coverage.” A self-insurance option, he notes, “would involve $35 million in the bank.”
In La Mariana’s opinion, for recyclers and transfer station operators to improve their insurance prospects, the way lithium-ion batteries are disposed of, collected and recycled will have to change. (See “Seeking collaboration and consensus”.)
In its San Mateo County joint powers districts, residents were formerly asked to “put household batteries in a Ziploc-style bag on top of the recycling container,” La Mariana says. Unfortunately, he says, residents who did not bother with the bag may have concluded that since they were atop the recycling bin, there was no harm in merely putting the batteries inside the recycling container itself.
Starting in September, residents began to be asked to place all batteries in a “bright orange bag” not atop the recycling bin, but rather, atop the black MSW bin. “Now, if collectors don’t see it, the bag goes to a transfer station rather than the MRF. The transfer station is not as mechanized and as liable to break the battery cell walls,” La Mariana says.
Rethink Waste is using direct mail to 95,000 households, newspaper ads and social media to stress the importance of better recycling practices to the community to help prevent what would be another devastating incident.
“We are on a mission with our battery collection program to have residents help us keep batteries out of the recycling plant,” states La Mariana.