People who live in the Fairpark and Rose Park neighborhoods of Salt Lake City say noxious fumes filled their streets and homes on Thursday and Friday after a chemical-coated railroad bridge caught fire.
Jake Van Epps, who lives in the Fairpark neighborhood about half a mile from the fire, said he was coughing and tearing up Friday morning just driving his child to day care. He said the smoke had cleared up a bit by the afternoon.
The fire started about 9 p.m. Thursday, according to the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Fire Capt. Anthony Burton said the cause is still under investigation. He said the bridge, which spans the Jordan River, is located just north of Fisher Mansion, which is at 1206 W. 200 South.
The fire is in a difficult place for firefighters to access, according to Burton. He said firefighters in wetsuits have been trying to get at the fire from under the bridge. Railway officials are supposed to bring in equipment to disassemble the bridge on Sunday or Monday, but it will likely keep smoldering until then.
Burton said the bridge, which is owned by Patriot Rail Company, was treated with creosote, a wood preservative made from coal tar.
Residents in the Rose Park community posted on social media that the smoke gave them headaches and made it hard to breathe. Some expressed concerns about the long-term health impacts of breathing burning creosote.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say longterm exposure to creosote vapors can irritate the lungs.
Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said on Saturday that Utah’s Environmental Protection Agency consulted with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry about how burning wood soaked in creosote impacts people’s health. Rupp said it is difficult to make firm assessments on the situation without more detailed information regarding the concentration of smoke and wind speed and direction, but he said people should not experience long-term health problems.
Rupp said when creosote burns, most of it is consumed by the fire and it creates a black smoke. Since the smoke from the bridge was white, it was probably mostly wood smoke. He said the smoke likely contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. Although the smoke might be irritating and smell bad, he said there shouldn’t be lingering health hazards. If people with preexisting conditions keep having problems after the smoke clears, he said, they might want to talk to a health care provider.
Van Epps said Friday he was frustrated because information about the health impacts of the fire were not made readily available to residents. He had to call the fire department to learn about the creosote.
“There is definitely a sense in Rose Park and Fairpark that if this occurred in a more affluent and whiter neighborhood the city response and information might have been handled with greater impact and efficiency,” he said.
Blanca Fabiola Madrigal, who also lives near the Fair Park, said she first noticed the smoke when she went for her daily walk on Friday morning. She said the air smelled like burning metal.
Madrigal said she had trouble finding information about what was happening outside of what other residents posted on Facebook.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office issued a statement on the fire, which responded to the complaints of these residents.
“All our communities are a priority to us and we know our fire department worked through the night into the day to get control of the fire and provide up-to-date information to neighbors,” the statement says. “Unfortunately this fire is on a railroad trestle and requires heavy equipment to extinguish. The property owner has been working to get that here as quickly as possible.”
The Environmental Protection Agency was expected to bring in air quality monitors on Saturday, according to the mayor’s office.