Just after 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 24, flames were beginning to die down at the Penobscot McCrum factory in Belfast, but the billowing clouds of smoke could be seen for miles. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Clark

BELFAST, Maine — A day after the Penobscot McCrum potato processing factory in Belfast caught fire, firefighters were still pouring water on the charred ruins of the massive industrial structure.

All that water, plus chemicals and other substances from the building, didn’t have far to travel before becoming runoff in the Passagassawakeag River and Belfast Bay. Chemicals from the factory also dissipated into the air.

That has some in the community wondering about the potential for water and air pollution in the wake of the fire.

John Tipping, who does water quality analysis through his Belfast business, Lotic Inc., planned to head to the city’s waterfront Friday to take some water samples and start doing tests to understand what, if anything, is happening in the bay.

“The thing we always think about is what’s the dilution, what’s actually going into the harbor, what kind of chemical is it and how long will it last,” the biologist, a board member of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, said.

An oil slick can be seen on the river near where Penobscot McCrum burned on Thursday, March 24. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Clark

David Madore, the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Friday that department staff placed booms, or temporary containment barriers, around the edge of the parking lot to absorb and contain oil from the fire site. They also used a boat to monitor the runoff from the facility while firefighters put the largest volume of water on the fire.

“A negligible oily sheen was noted from the parking lot but not recoverable,” he said in an email.

The Maine DEP had hard booms ready to use if they needed to, Madore said.

The department was working with the Belfast Fire Department to learn if chemical retardants were used to put out the fire, he said.

“There hasn’t been a confirmed use,” he said.

But the primary chemicals of concern from Penobscot McCrum were anhydrous ammonia and the sulfuric acid that is used in the company’s wastewater treatment plant, a separate building that survived the fire unscathed. Ammonia, a corrosive gas, can be deadly. There were an estimated 12,000 pounds of it at the factory, according to Waldo County Emergency Medical Management Agency Director Dale Rowley.

Madore said that the ammonia is being appropriately dealt with.

“Ammonia which is used as a refrigerant is being slowly released while a water fog is applied to suppress it,” he wrote. “Ammonia-type odors may be apparent.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the perimeter of the fire site for hazardous materials including ammonia, oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds.

Madore said that no exceedances have been noted.