The fertilizer factory on fire in Winston-Salem was built out in the country. Then the city grew around it.
Weaver Fertilizer put a factory north of town in 1939. Now, some 6,500 people live within a mile of it.
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Ten years ago, I spent 24 hours with the busiest firefighters in Charlotte. The city built Station 15 in 1965 at the corner of Eastway and Shamrock Drives. It was then at the edge of town, at a time when the postwar boom was pushing development further away from the city center. Modest new ranch houses popped up, but the development and money kept moving outward. Over time, that left the neighborhood full of people who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else, in homes that were starting to show their age. When I visited in 2011, that station handled 13 calls a days when most other stations got one or two. There were a few fires, but firefighters mostly responded to medical issues, many from people who had no insurance and nowhere else to turn. The city kept growing, but a lot of folks there couldn’t afford to do anything but stay where they were.
I’ve been thinking of that neighborhood a lot this week, mostly because of what I’m seeing in a neighborhood in Winston-Salem.
At this moment, there’s a large fire burning at the Weaver Fertilizer Company. The biggest issue is that there’s ammonium nitrate inside, which isn’t unsafe under normal conditions, but is extremely explosive if it catches on fire in a confined space. In 2013, a fertilizer plant in Texas caught fire and blew up, killing more than a dozen people and damaging or destroying 150 buildings. There is, according to Winston-Salem’s fire chief, three times as much ammonium nitrate being stored at the Winston Weaver fertilizer facility than at the one that exploded in Texas. He’s very worried. As a result, there’s an evacuation order for everyone within a mile of the plant. Wake Forest University, my employer, sits just outside that one mile radius and cancelled classes for the rest of the week. There’s a lot of smoke around that smells like spent fireworks, and while authorities say it’s not life threatening, it’s not something you really want to be out in.
There’s been a lot of dogged reporting on this from local news outlets, all of which you should go and read for the latest information. But one thing sticks out, though: The fact that a potentially explosive fertilizer plant could be well within the city limits of Winston-Salem, with homes nearby. Some 6,500 people live within the evacuation zone.
Well, they weren’t. At first.
The Weaver Fertilizer plant was built in 1939, and opened a year later. As you can see in this aerial image from 1940, there is really nothing out there next to it, except for some scattered homes, a few farms, and some fairly thick forest.
In 1947, a city planning map also shows… nothing much out there. In fact, it’s not until 1964 that the fertilizer plant was actually annexed into the city of Winston-Salem. During the decade and a half before, the city expanded outward in chunks, picking up land and expanding its current (and future) tax base. A quick survey of homes nearby via the Forsyth County GIS services shows a hodgepodge of construction dates. Some houses date back to the 1930s. Many are from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Over time, neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and other factories replaced the forests and farms.
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Weaver Fertilizer stayed. And even though it’s only about a mile-and-a-half away from my office on campus, I had never heard of it. That’s partly because … it never really showed up in any headlines. In 1945, the company got in trouble for selling bags that weighed less than advertised, and its superintendent had to pay a $100 fine. For decades, that was the only story written about the place. Two other newspaper articles—one in the 1970s, the other in the 1990s—mentioned the company’s willingness to hire inmates on work release programs. (One, a chemist who was convicted of murdering his wife, told the parole board that he could best be rehabilitated by building himself a yacht on the fertilizer factory’s property. That request was denied.)
The place avoided public controversy mostly because it quietly kept passing inspections, but inspectors were grading on a curve. The fertilizer plant was built 83 years ago and largely grandfathered in to local codes and regulations. That meant, in essence, that the place could run with safety measures that were concocted in the 1940s and still be in line with the law. Weaver Fertilizer did not have sprinklers. It wasn’t required to. In an interview, a former Greensboro fire marshal basically threw up his hands:
When asked about why businesses aren't forced to retrofit buildings he said, “Conforming to codes is expensive. If we made everyone do it, some businesses would choose to close the building and say it wasn't worth the expense. We never wanted to overreach what was reasonable and require them to do stuff.”
The area immediately nearby is largely industrial, but there are plenty of homes within a mile of the plant. A scan of census tracts next to the factory show a population that’s largely Black and Hispanic, with income rates far below the county average. Then, as now, poorer folks and minorities often bear the brunt of factories’ pollution and potential danger because they’re often the closest to them.
There’s no word on how the fire at Weaver actually started, and as of Wednesday night, firefighters who had pulled back for their own safety were starting to return to the plant. Nobody has been hurt, and all of the workers have been accounted for. Even so, an entire city is dealing with smoke. A somewhat overlooked factory still has the potential to explode. Thousands of people can’t go home. This is all because of a fire, sure, but it’s also because of a push to keep growing, to keep building, to keep progressing. Doing so means dangerous things can end up in the wrong places. Some people can’t afford to get out of the way.