Dudley railroad tie fire was arson; DEQ requiring soil, ash sampling

Photo: Lisa Sorg

Arson was the cause of a blaze that burned nearly 2 million creosote-treated railroad ties last month in Dudley, a fire that smoldered for nearly a week and spewed plumes of purple smoke several stories high.

Now the NC Department of Environmental Quality is requiring the company, National Salvage & Service, to sample the ash, soil and groundwater for hazardous chemicals that could have been released as a result of the fire.

The Division of Waste Management recently updated the Environmental Management Commission on the incident and its cause.

The fire broke out in the early morning of Saturday, Feb. 11, at 430 Old Mount Olive Highway, near Goldsboro. National Salvage & Service owns the 54-acre property, where it 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.

CSX Railroad provides the old ties to National Salvage & Service.

This aerial photo, taken before the fire, shows the numerous railroad ties at National Salvage & Service in Dudley. (Photo: Wayne County)

This aerial photo, taken before the fire, shows the numerous railroad ties at National Salvage & Service in Dudley. (Photo: Wayne County)

A letter dated March 7 from state regulators to the company not only requires testing but also a cleanup plan and an inventory of all hazardous materials used onsite. For example, the company’s state air permit lists two 2,500-gallon diesel fuel tanks, which would contain petroleum-related contaminants.

The site lies near an unnamed stream and is just a half mile from the Neuse River.

Railroad ties are often treated with creosote, a mixture of hundreds to thousands of chemicals, extracted from beechwood, creosote bush or coal. It is used as a wood preservative to keeps insects from destroying the ties.

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.)

Company spokesman Tim Rushenberg confirmed to Policy Watch that arson caused the fire. He said the of number ties — 1.8 million — on site was “not normal,” and that usually the stockpile is 300,000 to 400,000.

The backlog grew during the pandemic, Rushenberg said, as work slowed down and the company lost a nearby customer that had been accepting some of the ties. “We did our best to keep up,” Rushenberg said. “But the ties will stack up quickly.”

When the fire broke out, the EPA and the state contacted Wayne County officials, but were told “we got this,” according to the division representative. The state did send someone from the stormwater section to monitor any runoff from the site. Wayne County had placed booms in the stream to prevent any runoff from reaching the river.

The company, based in Bloomington, Indiana, planned to haul the ash to the Wayne County landfill, a division representative told the EMC, but the state wants the material to be tested first.

Rushenberg said the company is hiring a consultant to fulfill the requirements laid out in the state’s letter. He said he did not anticipate any hazardous materials to be detected, based on results from another fire at the company’s facility in Selma, Alabama. That fire occurred on Aug. 1, 2021, the result of a lightning strike. There was a similar number of ties on the Selma property and the size of the fire was about the same, Rushenberg said.

That sampling turned up nothing hazardous, he said.

The Dudley site is one of four railroad tie recycling facilities that National Salvage & Service operates nationwide. Besides Selma, there are two operations in Louisiana and Mississippi. The company also runs two power plants in Michigan that burn the ties for fuel.

National Salvage & Service was cited by the state Division of Air Quality in 2016 for a violation of its permit, state records show. While investigating a citizen complaint about dust leaving the plant boundaries — which was validated — a state inspector found a diesel-fired grinder had been operating without an air quality permit since June 11, 2013. This unit was shut-down on July 14, 2016. There is no record of a fine.

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Dudley railroad tie fire was arson; DEQ requiring soil, ash sampling