Plant fire and possible carbon monoxide exposure raising more questions


An investigation by News Channel Nebraska is unearthing  more information about a “smoldering coal fire” at the Archer Daniels Midlands plant in Columbus and possible health problems.

Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley convinced that, “We now have citizens that have been sick and tested for CO2 (carbon monoxide) poisoning at our local hospital.”

The mayor’s comment part of an email he sent to an ADM official on July 29 and obtained today by News Channel Nebraska following several public records requests by NCN.

The mayor’s email also noting that the fire—which we now know started in the early hours of July 14—required a statement from the company because as the mayor wrote, “Until I came to the plant on Tuesday (July 27) and asked about what was going on there was NO communication.”

Bulkley urged the company to issue a statement which they did later that day telling NCN, ““Recently, ADM colleagues discovered smoldering coal in our storage dome in Columbus, NE. We called the fire department, and are working with external experts from Hazard Control Technologies to monitor the situation and extinguish any remaining hot spots. Ensuring the safety and well-being of our employees, the community and the environment are among our most important responsibilities, and we will conduct a thorough investigation of this incident.”

NCN has also obtained an email sent from Columbus Fire Chief Dan Miller to the mayor on July 28, with a timeline of the incident.

According to Chief Miller’s summary, the July 14 coal fire began just before 3:30 am with this notation: “(Columbus Fire) called to ADM re: coal fire. 1 casualty firefighter. I was incident commander.”

The summary then notes that CFD was back at the plant on July 16 and 19. At 5 pm on the 19th Chief Miller tells the mayor, “I advised ADM that due to the high risk and taxing of City/Rural human resources, we would not be putting more personnel in the dome for the coal fire situation, and that they needed to find an alternate solution.”

Today Miller tells NCN his department "was in close communication with ADM via phone regarding this incident, as it continued to smolder and burn." Miller adding that on July 21 CFD met with ADM to discuss further options and, "Due to the specialized nature of the fire and the amount of resources required, ADM opted to hire a private contractor to assist them with extinguishment."

As to the health fall-out from the incident, NCN contacted officials with the local health department.

The East Central District Health Department telling NCN, “Our investigation revealed that since 7/14, four people were tested for CO and two individuals met the threshold for CO exposure and were treated within the health district. No hospitalizations had occurred within the health district and no patients were transferred related to carbon monoxide exposure. The source of the carbon monoxide exposure is unknown at this time.”

Chief Miller tells NCN two firefighters were taken to the hospital's emergency room but released a short time later. Miller says on July 22 CFD responded to one other person complaining of potential exposure to fumes but was not taken to the hospital. According to Miller, "no injuries to the public have been directly linked to this incident."

The incident has been reported to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy but that announcement only raises more questions.

According to ECDHD, once notified of the fire officials contacted the state, "NDEE outlined that events of this type would fall under jurisdictional command of county emergency management. According to Platte County Emergency Management, no plans to establish incident command were in place at that time."

Platte County Emergency Management officials were not informed by ADM or other organizations of the fire until Thursday.

Tim Hofbauer, the head of PCEM, tells NCN  there are no plans for incident command because ADM is now monitoring CO2 levels at the plant.

Health experts tell us that residents in the immediate vicinity are encouraged to take precautions against possible carbon monoxide exposure. Symptoms of CO exposure include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.

As reported earlier, fire officials have told NCN they could not comment on whether there was a danger or not, but that they were managing the situation.

Several ADM employees tell NCN they are not concerned. 

By Friday afternoon, ADM had issued another statement via email to News Channel Nebraska.

“ADM is continuing to work with outside experts to extinguish hot spots in our Columbus coal dome, while simultaneously closely monitoring air quality. While ADM’s own tests have shown no indication that carbon monoxide has escaped beyond the dome area, out of an abundance of caution, we engaged CTEH, a highly respected independent environmental data collection firm, to confirm our results. Last night, CTEH began continuous air quality monitoring in the area surrounding our Columbus facility. Among 200 samples taken in all directions, at distances ranging from the facility fenceline to approximately two and a half miles away, CTEH has not detected any carbon monoxide.

“ADM has been a part of the Columbus community for almost 20 years. We live and work here, and the safety of our colleagues and our neighbors is our highest priority. Thus, CTEH will remain onsite, and we will continue to work with their experts to monitor the situation until we have extinguished the final hot spots.”

In the Friday email to NCN, representatives said that the company had brought in an independent testing firm, which had not yet found indications of carbon monoxide.