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Why don't St. Louis warehouses report what's inside?

State and city spokespeople said no law currently requires warehouse owners to report materials that otherwise would have to be reported by manufacturers.
A fire rages out of control in a warehouse after walls collapsed during a five-alarm fire in St. Louis on November 15, 2017. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

ST. LOUIS – When fire hits, seconds count. That's why there are reporting requirements for hazardous chemicals. But those requirements don't apply to warehouses.

So how could such an intense fire erupt without the St. Louis Fire Department knowing what was in the warehouse before it responded to calls for help?

“Unfortunately when things burn, it creates smoke. And that's, you know, what happened,” said Bob Grana, one of the owners of the torched warehouse on Park and 39th.

The fire toppled walls that narrowly missed firefighters, destroyed property and sent large dark billows of smoke into the air that smelled like pesticide according to people at the scene.

“There's no hazardous material,” Grana said.

Then why did Captain Garon Mosby of the St. Louis Fire Department say this?

“We declared it a hazardous-materials fed fire, the reason being it came to our attention it came to our knowledge later in the incident that there were large quantities of smaller packages of hazardous material,” said Mosby.

State and city spokespeople said no law currently requires warehouse owners to report materials that otherwise would have to be reported by manufacturers.

“I know that sounds like I don’t want to call it a loophole. It is different,” said Mosby.

But even Mosby conceded the difference had nothing to do with battling the blaze or its effect.

“In a fire like this, if you have over 150,000 citronella candles and they burn, they burn collectively. At that moment, it doesn’t matter if they’re individually packaged or if they're in a vat,” Mosby said.

Mosby said the Fire Department receives no information about the contents of finished products in warehouses.

That is because warehouses are not part of the reporting requirements otherwise contained in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Mike O’Connell — a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety and Missouri Emergency Response Commission, which enforces the EPCRA — said the statute’s reporting requirements apply to manufacturers with large quantities of raw material.

Sarah Gamblin-Luig, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Emergency Management Agency, confirmed there are no requirements for reporting hazardous materials beyond federal requirements.

Environmental attorney Bob Meenes of the Great River Environmental Law Center said paraffin, which is contained in candles, is listed as a toxic chemical by the EPA, yet warehouses are exempt from reporting such chemicals.

“If it’s going to burn, it’s going to burn collectively. We are going to get the same results if there were 55-gallon drums of the same material,” said Mosby.

Ward 17 Alderman Joe Roddy, whose constituents include residents who live near the fire, said he is going to be taking a closer look at whether city reporting ordinances should change.

“We had a number of firefighters that were injured or almost injured. We could have had a whole neighborhood that had toxic fumes dropped on them so it’s a serious situation needs to be understood better,” Roddy said.

Though warehouse owners may not have had to report chemicals on the front end, there could be penalties as a result of the fire says Meenes.

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