Tons of creosote-treated railroad ties burn, polluting air over largely non-white, low-income neighborhoods near Goldsboro

A shopping center and the Tropicana Supermarket is a half mile north of National Salvage & Security. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

From 25 miles away, an inky plume of smoke and its purple tail diffused over the eastern horizon. Closer to the blaze, smoke roiled and towered behind the tree line and a shopping center. It painted the sky over a subdivision. Its reflection floated on the Neuse River. Within a few hundred yards, flames licked the air, which smelled sharp and wooden.

Tons of railroad ties, many of them treated with toxic creosote, had caught fire early Saturday morning at National Salvage & Service on Old Mount Olive Highway in Dudley, near Goldsboro. It was still burning Sunday afternoon, although firefighters reported the blaze was under control. Fire officials have yet to announce a cause of the fire. There were no reports of injuries or evacuations.

Headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, National Salvage & Service recycles old railroad ties, either for reuse by rail companies or for landscape timbers, according to state records. Ties that are in poor condition are chipped and sold as boiler fuel to local power co-generation plants.

What is creosote?

Creosote is a mixture of hundreds to thousands of chemicals, extracted from beechwood, creosote bush or coal. It is used as a wood preservative, primarily for railroad ties and utility poles, which keeps insects from destroying them. When creosote is extracted from coal, it contains many contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also known as PAHs. These hydrocarbons are widespread in the environment: diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, even charbroiled food.)

Coal tar creosote ignites easily. The EPA lists it as a “probable human carcinogen” for long-term exposure, either in contaminated drinking water, skin contact — especially for workers who handle the substance — and inhalation.

In the short-term, exposure to smoke containing creosote can irritate the lung, throat and sinuses. Aside from the creosote, the wood smoke from the National Salvage & Service fire contains particulate matter, including very fine particles known as PM 2.5. The figure 2.5 is the size of the particle in microns; these particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and are invisible without a microscope.

The air quality in Goldsboro on Saturday, including PM 2.5 levels, was listed as “moderate,” according to IQ Air. (The state Division of Air Quality does not have an ambient air monitoring station in Goldsboro.) A stiff breeze, with gusts over 13 mph, helped disperse the smoke, but areas closest to the fire likely had higher PM 2.5 levels.

Creosote does not dissolve in water, and when it seeps into soil and groundwater, it usually forms an immobile tarry mass.

This map shows the racial, ethnic and economic make up of the Census Block Groups near the National Salvage & Service site. Areas in pink are designated as “potentially underserved areas” by NC DEQ. (Base map and data: DEQ Community Mapping System)


What is near the fire?

The 100-acre facility is bordered on three sides by predominantly non-white, low income communities. These neighborhoods are also home to many other pollution sources, including a poultry processing plant, two sand and gravel mines, and a 25-acre former open dump, according to the DEQ Community Mapping System.

The Neuse River is just a half mile from the site. National Salvage & Service has a state permit to discharge stormwater — runoff — to a tributary of the Neuse, state records show. The Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources — DEMLR — oversees the stormwater program; it listed no violations for the company in the last 10 years, when it received its initial permit. The latest permit renewal occurred in 2020.

The Neuse River at Old Waynesborough Park. This view is looking south toward the site of the fire. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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Tons of creosote-treated railroad ties burn, polluting air over largely non-white, low-income neighborhoods near Goldsboro