116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At Marengo blast, fire alarms and smoke detectors didn’t work
Firefighters and state officials don’t know what chemicals stored at C6-Zero
The sprinkler system, smoke detectors and fire hydrants at a Marengo recycling facility were not working or had been disabled before an explosion and fire last week that injured about 15 people, authorities said.
The State Fire Marshal and local law enforcement are interviewing people who worked at C-6 Zero to learn what sparked the fire that took more 200 firefighters to extinguish as the neighborhood around the plant was evacuated.
One of the questions officials are asking: Why weren’t the sprinklers working?
“I can confirm there were two fire hydrants on site that were not functioning,” Marengo Police Chief Ben Gray said. “There was no activation of indoor fire suppression system and I will confirm we are investigating that.”
Iowa Administrative Code requires all “life safety equipment” including alarm and sprinkler systems to be “in operable condition at all times” for structures where they are required. Failure to do this can result in criminal charges, said Ron Humphrey, special agent in charge of the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“There can be (criminal charges),” he said. “It’s kind of up to the county attorney on whether that would be filed or not.”
C6-Zero, which opened in Marengo in 2020, recycles spent roof shingles into byproducts that include sand and oil. The Gazette could not reach C6-Zero owner Howard Brand III for comment. A voicemail to a company spokesman was not returned and an email to him bounced back.
Mark Swift, a Marengo firefighter who was among the first at the Dec. 8 blaze, said the fire started in a large tank of the solvent used to dissolve the shingles.
“We couldn’t get any water inside, and stuff inside the tank was burning,” said Swift, who has been a firefighter since 1986. “When that broke was when we started to get a leak. It looks just like crude oil — just like the stuff you scrub off birds with Dawn.”
Firefighters and state officials did not know exactly what the solvent was and how much of it was stored on site, Swift said.
“Normally we’d get an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) sheet from the people. We will know what we’ve got. We could look it up and know what the hazards are,” Swift said. But “we didn’t know what the hell was in there.”
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tried get information from C6-Zero about the chemicals used in the plant. There had been a smaller fire at the plant Oct. 25.
“The department was in discussions with C6-Zero to learn about the manufacturing processes used and what environmental regulations may apply,” Iowa DNR spokeswoman Tammie Krausman said in an email. “No final determination on environmental requirements had been made because the facility had not provided all of the information necessary to complete the review.”
Private and public facilities are required by federal law to provide an inventory of potentially dangerous chemicals stored on their properties. In Iowa, these Tier II reports are filed by March 1 each year to the Iowa DNR, county emergency managers and local fire departments.
“The department has no Tier II reports for either of these facilities,” Krausman said about C6-Zero or Heartland Crush LLC, which used the facility from 2017 to 2020. “The department requested these documents, but they were never received.”
The Iowa DNR works with county emergency managers to keep track of companies that might store one of hundreds of thousands of possible chemicals in quantities large enough to require a Tier II report. Extremely Hazardous Substances must be reported at 500 pounds or more, while other chemicals don't require Tier II reports until they reach 10,000 pounds.
Krausman would not answer specific questions about communications with C6-Zero, including when the Iowa DNR requested information about the chemical caches and what triggered the request.
Iowa DNR officials did visit the C6-Zero plant in November, Gray said. This visit followed questions raised by Iowa County Emergency Management officials about chemicals on site. Marengo officials also contacted the Iowa DNR before the Oct. 25 fire to ask about regulations concerning shingles stored at the facility, he said.
About 15 people were injured in the explosion, including Cody Blasberg, a father who remains hospitalized in Iowa City with severe burns. Five people were transported to the hospital by ground ambulance and others went by private vehicle, Gray said.
The blast caused emergency responders to evacuate the neighborhood around the plant for several hours last Thursday.
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