Homes near Rimrock Explosives Inc. were built on a powder keg, land-use experts said Thursday.
In the wake of a threatened megaton blast here, planning specialists said the county erred years ago when it allowed homes to be built less than a mile from a dangerous industrial site.
Hundreds were evacuated Wednesday when a tiny fire at the Rimrock Explosives plant threatened to trigger a mammoth blast that would have destroyed nearby homes.
The scare uncovered holes in county laws that govern how close homes can be built to such plants.
The discovery has left many of the 150 or so residents in the Pineview and Emerald estates subdivisions seething - and rightly so, said Bill Schwartz, director of Kootenai County’s disaster response program.
“Those people have a very serious problem there, in my opinion,” he said. “If I lived there, I’d want some answers.”
Today, county emergency officials will assess future danger and begin trying to pin down solutions, but some of those answers may be slow in coming.
Local company officials Thursday refused to speak publicly about the fire and evacuation. Attempts to reach officials with Explosives Technologies Inc., Rimrock’s Delaware parent company, were unsuccessful.
Federal regulators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said the distance between the explosives and homes falls within federal guidelines. However, officials would not immediately release information from Rimrock’s most recent inspection in June, saying only that the company passed.
The explosives manufacturer has a solid reputation and good safety record.
Blasting experts around the country maintain the plant’s distance from homes posed no danger.
At worst, an explosion at the plant off Government Way north of Lancaster Road would have devastated only the company’s 240-acre tree-lined manufacturing site.
Experts say the evacuation was merely a precaution, because large explosions are subject to many variables.
“Shock waves can bounce off cloud cover and effects can be felt miles away just based on that,” said ATF special agent Jim Provencher, in Seattle. “It’s unpredictable.”
Ferris Williams, a blasting researcher at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said the worst possible outcome from Wednesday’s fire would have been a blast reaching four-tenths of a mile in all directions. But it’s unlikely all 275,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and other explosives in the plant would have detonated. A more likely event, Williams said, would have been an explosion reaching some 1,600 feet.
A handful of homes are within a quarter-mile of the plant. Most are more than a half-mile away.
“I’d feel comfortable living there,” Williams said. “But I may be a little more tolerant than most.”
Regardless, Chicago-based planning consultant Lane Kendig said an explosives plant should be buffered by other industrial development - not homes.
“Protecting public safety is the most critical role of zoning,” said Lane Kendig, a Chicago-based consultant who has written land-use plans for dozens of cities around the country. “Clearly it was a mistake to allow this to happen.”
Rimrock’s predecessor - a Dupont-owned explosives manufacturer - was built on the site in the 1950s. The plant back then was surrounded only by a gravel pit and farms.
Before the county adopted its first land-use plan in 1973 - the Pineview subdivision was built about 3,500 feet from the site.
“At the time a zoning ordinance was laid out, the decision was made to exempt existing uses,” said County Planning Director Cheri Howell.
Zoning established then wrongly allowed for additional homes to be placed next to the plant, she said. A second subdivision, Emerald Estates, was then built in 1977.
“Unless there’s a buffer between those uses, it’s not a good idea,” she said.
But existing requirements also are lax, she said. Some standards allow industrial development to come within a few hundred feet homes.
“It has really raised awareness around here about the dangers,” said County Commissioner Bob Macdonald.
That awareness should have come sooner, some residents said.
“I feel they put us in jeopardy,” said Bill Saunders, who lives about a half mile away from Rimrock. “They should never have allowed any of this area to be developed in the first place.”
He doesn’t care what federal regulators consider safe.
“Those people in the federal government that make these laws live thousands of miles away from here,” he said.