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Rose Park Residents Waited Two Days For An Explanation After A Potentially Toxic Fire

Photo of a smoke-covered suspended railway.
Courtesy of Salt Lake City Fire Department
A railway bridge on the west side of Salt Lake City caught fire on Thursday night and continued to smoke through Saturday due a chemical product in the wood.

On the morning of Jan. 8, Marina Gutierrez woke up at 3 a.m. with a pounding headache.

Her home on the west side of Salt Lake City was filled with a foul odor — a smell she described as something between burning rubber and melting tires.

“I just jumped out of bed. I turned off our heater. I turned off everything because I was really worried,” Gutierrez said. “I felt so sick… and I just couldn’t imagine what it could be.”

About 20 of her neighbors were also alarmed and posted about it that day in the Rose Park Communities Facebook group, looking for information.

The source was a burning railroad bridge a few blocks away. The 120-foot-long structure caught fire around 9 p.m. on Thursday and smoldered until midday Saturday, according to the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

The department is still investigating the cause of the fire.

Health Hazards: What We Know And What We Don’t Know

Department spokesperson Anthony Burton said there were a few reasons why the fire was difficult to put out. First, its location over the Jordan River meant firefighters had to clamber down the icy, muddy riverbanks and enter the water to douse the flames. Second, the department doesn’t have the heavy machinery needed to dismantle the structure.

The third reason — and the source of the smell — was the bridge had been treated with creosote, a coal-tar product used to protect wood against rotting. The creosote also made it impossible for firefighters’ water to penetrate the interior of the blaze.

The Salt Lake County Health Department arrived at the site of the fire around 10 a.m. on Friday. The flames were mostly extinguished at that point, said environmental health director Ron Lund.

Courtesy Salt Lake City Fire Department
The burned section railway is owned by Patriot Rail. The company has since released a statement saying it took action right away to mitigate the fire’s environmental effects.

Lund said his department had been called in to monitor the chemical residue the fire was leaving on the surface of the Jordan River, not the air quality. But he did notice the structure was still smoking.

“The smoke was not perfectly white,” Lund said, “But it was relatively grey or lighter in color, which is indicative of more wood burning than, for instance, creosote — which usually is a very black, dark smoke.”

Creosote, which is highly flammable, is the most common wood preservative in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also known to cause rashes, severe irritation, chemical burns and death following brief exposures to large amounts of the substance.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it should not be burned in residential areas “to avoid possible inhalation of toxic chemicals in the smoke and ash.”

But Lund said that in this case, the amount and color of the smoke from the bridge fire did not constitute a public health hazard by the time his agency arrived on scene. So between those observations and conversations with the EPA, his department did not decide to send out any communications to the residents of the nearby neighborhoods.

Lund acknowledged, however, that his agency did not check any local air monitoring data before arriving at that determination.

The Utah Division of Air Quality operates a monitoring system along the Wasatch Front. The division’s spokesperson, Jared Mendenhall, said their data showed a significant spike in particulate matter in the area during the first night of the fire. But he added air quality had returned to within EPA standards by Friday morning and has remained there since.

“It is impacting air quality, but it’s a sliver of what’s impacting air quality,” Mendenhall said a few days after the fire had been extinguished.

Community Health Concerns

But not all residents are convinced the smoke was harmless.

In the four days after the fire started, nearly 40 people posted in the Rose Park Community Facebook group — 12 of whom said they were experiencing headaches, lightheadedness, swollen eyes and feeling generally ill.

That number is troubling to Dr. Brian Moench, the board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Citing the New England Journal of Medicine, Moench said any form of air pollution is a health hazard.
Plus, the fact that people experienced immediate symptoms is a sign they were exposed to harmful levels of toxins, Moench explained.

“Generally speaking, if you can smell the fumes from something, you’re probably being exposed to something that’s harmful,” he said. “My concern is the same kind of reaction that you often get with these sorts of things is that initially, authorities downplay the seriousness of the situation.”

Moench pointed to officials’ response when a Chevron pipeline spilled oil into Red Butte Creek in 2010 as a recent example.

As a Rose Park resident with asthma, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she was also concerned about the fire and any related health hazards.

She validated her constituents’ concerns and said they do typically get less media attention on the west-side. But she said in this case, local, state and federal authorities and Patriot Rail — the private company that owns the burned section of the railway — all responded in a proactive and timely manner.

But with so many agencies involved, the state senator said there needed to be better ways of relaying information to the public. “It shows we’re lacking protocol that should apply to everything we do,” she said. She added outreach on the West Side requires communication efforts in multiple languages and on-the-ground presence because some residents lack regular access to TV, radio and internet.

Communication Gaps

Of the more than 61 Facebook posts and comments made by 40 people in the first four days after the fire, the most common complaint — by far — was that authorities had failed to provide information about the health effects of the smoke in a timely manner.

The screenshot above was one of nearly 20 comments or posts in the Rose Park Communities Facebook group that criticized the lack of public information surrounding the Railway Fire.

“My biggest grievance was that nobody was notified. There was no kind of system,” said Marina Gutierrez, who lives near the burned bridge. “The firemen knew from the time they were on site what chemical it was and what was burning and the level of toxicity. And somehow, that information was not communicated to the people it was going to affect.”

A spokesperson for the Salt Lake City mayor’s office said all communication is supposed to flow through the fire department and community councils.

The Salt Lake City Fire Department tweeted three times about the fire on Friday and over the weekend with updates about the firefighting effort, but did not make any mention of potential health hazards.

The Rose Park Community Council made its first post on Saturday night, more than 48 hours after the fire started, after they talked with city officials.

“It does smell bad, but primarily it’s an irritant,” the council wrote. “[The] Health Department says it’s very unlikely that any residents will get concentrations of smoke in hazardous levels. EPA will be bringing air monitor equipment to the scene to verify.”

But the Salt Lake County Health department said that the EPA did not ultimately bring air monitoring equipment. Environmental health director Lund said that was because the smoke had already cleared significantly, so it wasn’t worth bringing in a monitoring system from the Denver office.

KUER’s Emily Means contributed reporting to this story.

Corrected: January 14, 2021 at 6:28 PM MST
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s environmental health director.
David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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