On the evening of Feb. 2, 2017, something ignited on the tipping floor of Covanta's waste-to-energy facility in Lorton, VA. Maybe it was a lithium-ion battery that shouldn't have been disposed with municipal waste, maybe it was a bag of ashes from a bonfire: The investigation into the cause was inconclusive.
The accidental ignition became a two-alarm fire. It spread from a pile of rubbish on the tipping floor to the massive pit filled with trash that was waiting to be moved into the boiler.
"It quickly went up the pit," facility manager Frank Capobianco said. "We ended up damaging the tipping floor, the cranes, all three cranes were non-operational after the fire event."
At 9:09 p.m. that night, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue were dispatched to the scene of the 3,000 ton-per-day facility. Upon arriving, Captain Richard Trudeau reported seeing smoke from all sides of the building and multiple-story fire through the roof on the left side.
Trudeau said the roof fire looked too advanced, and "several explosions" occurred, so the fire crew stayed in one spot and was "lobbing water into the wall of fire" as they were pulled out.
Once pulled out of the tipping floor building, Trudeau said, the crew forced open another door and began spraying water toward the "seat of the fire."
A little after 8 a.m. the next day, another crew was dispatched. Captain David Hessler reports seeing a "large volume of fire" coming out of the back side of the building and through at least four bay doors. At 10:30 a.m., a Covanta representative told the firefighters to remove some of the siding from the building, which allowed smoke to vent out and made it easier to aim water streams at the fires inside.
By Saturday, crews were wading through water runoff to address certain hot spots left in the trash pit. An early morning report from Saturday says that the fire department found one of Covanta's water cannons shut down, while the other two were flowing.
The fire was largely contained by Feb. 5, but fire crews remained on site until Valentine's Day to address hot spots in the trash pile as it was removed from the pit. In his initial incident report, Trudeau said it appeared that Covanta called the fire department "late in the game." Follow-ups from Fairfax County though, dispute that.
"[An] investigation revealed that Covanta personnel working the night of the fire followed their written emergency response procedures and performed exactly as required by the company," Fairfax County says on its website.
The Fairfax facility did have water cannons at the time, but they had to be manually operated. Capobianco said the smoke was too thick to operate the cannons effectively and see where a fire was.
Three cranes were damaged. The water cannons were out of service. The roof was burned. Walls were torn open. It would be months before the facility started taking trash again.
In all, the overall impact of the downtime at Fairfax (the facility would not resume operation until December 2017) cost Covanta "over $20 million relative to our initial expectations for the year," according to CFO Brad Helgeson.
In a recent earnings call, CEO Steve Jones said the company has done a fire review of its facilities and "will begin installing upgraded systems and equipment to reduce the likelihood and potential impact of future fires."
So far, the company has not disclosed how much it cost to get the Fairfax facility back up and running, or how much it is planning to spend on upgrade at its other facilities.
"We're still kind of in flux on insurance and all that," spokesman James Regan told Waste Dive.
But the company has a bright outlook for 2018. Jones said that with Fairfax back online, the company can get back into pushing growth in the profiled waste sector. Executives also expect Fairfax to account for about $30 million in organic adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) of a total of $40-$50 million in 2018.
After months of working with the fire marshal to approve changes and systems for fire suppression, Covanta Fairfax was ready to come back online. When trash started flowing again in December, the facility was decked out, as it is now, with new infrastructure to fight fires.
Covanta's improvements include:
- Thermal imaging cameras
- Motor-operated roof hatches
- A noncombustible roof system
- Automatic dispatch for emergency response
- Upgraded sprinklers
The new cameras are among the most notable of the improvements. Cameras that monitor the pit and the tipping floor are now dual in nature — providing video and infrared feedback. That way, if there's thick smoke, an employee operating a water cannon can still see the source of the heat through the infrared monitor and get an idea of where to aim.
If the sensors facing the waste pit ever detect a fire, it starts an automatic cycle. The water cannons will deploy, and it will automatically call 911 for a fire response.
"The operator in the control room has 10 seconds to abort it if he doesn't see anything," Capobianco said. "But in 10 seconds, if the IR sees something, it's going off."
The facility was also fitted with a new roof (most burned off in the fire) that is layers of concrete and a self-extinguishing membrane.
"The night of the fire, the material that was on the roof, once it got up there, it just kind of went," Capobianco said. "It looked like the whole building was on fire. But I was here the night of the fire, 'cause I got called in, I was literally underneath the roof. It was fine, but it looked like the whole building was done."
Regan confirmed the changes at the Fairfax facility were at least being considered at other Covanta properties, though each plant has its own "individual risk" that needs to be assessed before renovations are implemented.
The tipping floor and pit area have been refitted with a new sprinkler system and roof hatches that open mechanically, instead of manually. The property now has capability to do thermal monitoring of incoming loads, has implemented new waste storage procedures and is doing additional training with employees.
Facility down time can always hurt the bottom line; this is especially true when that down time includes paying for repairs and rebuilding after an event like a fire. Additionally, at least three fatalities and eight direct injuries in 2017 were caused by waste and recycling facility fires, according to Fire Rover.
With reports showing that the amount of e-waste generated is expected to increase, consumers may be more likely to discard old electronics improperly. This means more lithium batteries could be entering the waste stream. While the industry can take steps to educate consumers on ways to properly dispose electronics instead, it is also increasingly important to take steps in facilities to respond to incidents.
The improvements made at the Fairfax facility could serve as an example for other operators looking to improve fire safety at their own sites. Automatically calling emergency services when an incident is detected can save precious time when every second counts, for example.
Sometimes, though, it's as simple as implementing operational changes that don't require investment in new technology. At the Fairfax facility, for example, Covanta no longer allows waste to remain on the tipping floor overnight. Part of the problem during the night of the fire was how close to the pit waste on the floor was, allowing the fire to quickly spread.
Now, there's a 15-foot "barrier" from the pit where trucks are supposed to dump waste before it's pushed into the pit. The barrier is represented by a green laser line; there's a red laser line 6 feet from the pit to prevent individuals from getting too close.
After investing in "state-of-the-art" equipment, as Capobianco called the upgrades, the Fairfax facility is positioned to bring plenty of increased revenue to Covanta. The company, badly burned last year, is looking to expand operations in Europe and also expects to bring in revenue from the restarted mutilated coin program. And, with Fairfax and Dublin both back at full capacity, Covanta is expecting over 1 million tons in improved volume this year.