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When Nancy Valentino stepped outside to smoke a cigarette the evening of Memorial Day, she didn’t expect to see anything out of the ordinary. The residents on 19th and Dorcas streets heard pops, but they all assumed they were firecrackers. Then she saw black, billowing clouds of smoke.

“There was all that smoke over those trees,” she said looking south toward the charred remains of the Nox-Crete chemical warehouse about 2,000 feet from her home. “There were car crashes because they had to detour traffic. I was concerned about what was in the air. I have grandkids in the house.”

On May 31, Nox-Crete Manufacturing reported a three-alarm chemical fire in its warehouse near 20th and Woolworth streets, which houses concrete sealant chemicals. It took more than a week for the Omaha company to provide a list of what chemicals burned in the fire, despite making one days earlier, and local agencies are still determining potential effects. 

“We want to obviously keep people abreast of what we know,” said Owen Lasswell, Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) public information officer. “We can only release information when we have something to share based off of factual data. That would be information observed in our reports, information posted or public records documents.”

The NDEE received Nox-Crete’s hazardous material inventory for chemicals with volumes greater than 4,000 pounds the afternoon of June 9. The inventory report was taken on May 27. NDEE is still completing its assessment of the area following this new information. In an interview with The Reader, NDEE officials had “no comment” for the delay in releasing the list of the chemicals.

Nox-Crete’s hazardous material inventory as of May 27, three days before the fire. Retrieved from NDEE’s public records portal.

Many still wonder if they should be concerned about the chemicals in the fire.

Grover Linderman, who’s lived in his home near 19th and Dorcas streets for 40 years, said he got a gust of black smoke in his face the night of the fire and struggled to breathe normally. His wife had to consult a doctor in order to find him an inhaler. 

“I would like to know what’s going on,” Linderman said. “I’m gasping for air. I feel it in my lungs.”

Three of the chemicals listed in Nox-Crete’s inventory are labeled as aspiration hazards and contain the chemical naphthalene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon that can irritate eyes and breathing passages if present in the air.

Smoke from a fire at the Nox-Crete chemical factory in South Omaha pours over Omaha as residents watch near 20th and Pierce streets. Photo by Chris Bowling.

“A lot of other compounds that are non-volatile, including [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] (PAHs) can be found in all kinds of smoke,” said Dr. Eleanor Rogan, carcinogen researcher and professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “If there is smoke, you have pAH there. The big issue would be respiratory problems. You could begin to have trouble breathing because of all the smoke in the air, and you could maybe have some type of allergic reaction to it.”

Over 8,000 pounds of the aromatic hydrocarbon xylene were present in the warehouse. Xylene has been discovered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at nearly half of the most hazardous waste sites nationwide, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The day after the fire NDEE said its continuous air monitors at 4102 Woolworth Ave., 78th and Dodge streets and 1616 Whitmore St. showed levels of nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter, or sulfur dioxide did not exceed federal standards. While consulted at approximately 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, the NDEE referenced hourly readings beginning at 5:00 a.m. on Monday.

Best practices for handling a chemical fire aren’t entirely clear. Records requests from The Reader showed general NDEE emergency response procedures, as well as the Omaha Fire Department’s guidelines for handling hazardous materials, however specific directives for coordinated action among local agencies, weren’t available.

When asked if there are any regulations restricting chemical plants from being located near residential areas, NDEE officials declined to comment. 

Nox-Crete received three violations from the EPA within two decades, the first offense dating back to 1991, the most recent being in 2011. In 2004 and 2011, the company was fined for not having an adequate Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) plan. The EPA didn’t respond to requests to comment.

After requesting federal assistance from the EPA Region Ⅶ division, the NDEE began site investigations the morning after the fire. NDEE geologist Neal Heil helmed the field investigation, and public records indicate NDEE was notified of the incident by the fire department at 9:35 am that same morning. 

Map of the affected area created by the NDEE and included in their May 31 field investigation.

Heil noted the presence of petroleum in run-off near the scene. He also measured the surroundings for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that become gasses at room temperature, using a  MultiRAE Pro, a handheld device that detects chemicals and radiation. While traces of volatile organic compounds were detected, their prevalence did not exceed the federal minimum dictated by the EPA, according to the NDEE’s June 2 press release.

The remains of the Nox-Crete warehouse. Photo by Neal Heil for the NDEE.

The NDEE notified the City of Omaha regarding the site run-off. The city’s wastewater treatment plant agreed to treat the potential pollution. NDEE reported the only wells within 1,000 feet of Nox-Crete are monitoring wells, reservoirs that are used to measure changes in groundwater and are not connected to the drinking water supply.

Residents were also confused about evacuating. While Valentino and Linderman were within the evacuation zone from 13th to 20th streets and Leavenworth to Martha streets recommended by the fire department, they stayed. Linderman, who uses a wheelchair, said he had nowhere to go. By the time he found out about the evacuation center at the Columbus Community Center through local TV news, the fire was dying, he said. 

Even after a public meeting on Wednesday, June 1, residents found few answers, according to the Omaha World-Herald. From firefighters not being equipped with carbon dioxide gas to best fight the fire, to emergency directives given solely in English to an area with a large Hispanic population, many questioned the local government’s handling of the situation.

Sue Zarp, another resident at 19th and Dorcas streets said she wished she had attended the meeting, as her concerns grew witnessing the handling of the fire’s aftermath.

“Nox-Crete projected a certain image,” Zarp said “We never wondered, ‘I hope there’s no dangerous chemicals in there.’ It’s not that[Nox-Crete] covered it up, [it’s that] they had a lack of accountability.” 

Following the release of the chemical inventory, the NDEE and EPA Region Ⅶ plan to continue observing the area, though they don’t have any set plans for environmental cleanup as of now.

“It’s preliminary to talk about cleanup,” Buell said. “We’re still in the investigative phase in terms of Nox-Crete determining the extent of the release. All the burned material inside of the building footprint will need to be removed and properly disposed, but in terms of cleanup beyond that, it’s too early to comment.” 

Others can’t help but feel this situation would have been handled differently in other parts of the city. The median income in this zip code is $43,690, about 35% less than the county’s. The buildings show more wear and it’s not uncommon to see homes and parks abutting industrial sites. Valentino doesn’t know what short or long-term harm she and her family have encountered, but she’s not counting on hearing answers either.

“[The City] forgot about it,” Valentino said. “They thought, ‘It’s over, it’s done. Who cares?’”

contact the writer at isa@thereader.com


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Isa Luzarraga

Isa Luzarraga (she/her) is a current honors student at Emerson College in Boston, MA majoring in journalism and minoring in media studies and Latinx studies. She graduated from Millard North High School...

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