A coal fire that began early Sunday morning at We Energies' County Grounds Power Plant was finally put out after a 20-hour stretch of innovative firefighting throughout Thursday and into Friday.
It took the Wauwatosa Fire Department with the aid of specialists and specialized equipment from as far away as Duluth, Minn., to douse and remove the coal after efforts by We Energies proved futile.
Tosa firefighters were called to the Watertown Plank Road plant at 7:30 a.m. Sunday when coal ignited in bunkers on the sixth floor. Initially, it was determined that water could not be used because of the danger to and from the high-voltage electrical power equipment below.
A truck from Gen. Mitchell International Airport was brought in and foam retardant, preferred for fighting aircraft fuel fires, was pumped to the coal bins. However, the heat from the deep, dense fuel source broke down the foam, and the water component it released again caused risks to electrical equipment.
By Sunday evening, Fire Chief Rob Ugaste had announced that efforts by the Fire Department were being halted and that We Energies would try to mechanically remove the coal, a process he expected could take days.
Firefighters called back in
It did, and in the end didn't work. The Fire Department was brought back in, along with First Strike Safety fire specialists from Duluth, Assistant Fire Chief Scott Erke said Friday afternoon.
Erke said that "hot spots" deep in two coal bunkers made it impossible to remove the coal, and by mid-week a new firefighting strategy was developed.
"We Energies brought in First Strike and also transferred equipment from the Oak Creek Power Plant, a long 'piercing nozzle' that can reach deep into a coal pile or bunker," Erke said.
"We supplied water through the piercing nozzle to these hot spots and over a couple of long days brought it under control," he said. "Two large trucks were brought in and all the coal, 120 tons, and the water, was hauled off."
Erke said that the process began at 8:30 a.m. Thursday by firefighters working in shifts and was temporarily broken off at 1 a.m. Friday. At 8:30 a.m. Friday, the process resumed and proceeded until 2 p.m., when the last of the coal had been removed and firefighters cleared the site.
"It was long, hot work," Erke said, "but nothing was damaged, no one was hurt, and steam to the hospitals was never shut off."
Erke praised not only his firefighters but also the personnel of the Duluth company, who specialize in fighting fires in confined spaces.
"They were called in to deal with the Tomahawk fire, which killed a couple of people," Erke said of a 2009 power plant fire.
Nearby, localized fish kill is reported
Meanwhile, concerned citizens had alerted Wauwatosa Patch to the discovery Thursday of what was thought to be a toxic spill contaminating a nearby waterway and causing a fish kill of unknown proportions.
Photos taken by a witness who contacted the Department of Natural Resources show piles of white foam on a small pool below a storm sewer outfall at the head of a Milwaukee County detention pond north of Watertown Plank Road at North 86th Street.
Numbers of small, dead sunfish called warmouths lay on the bottom of the pool Friday morning, and the citizen who first noticed the problem at 4:30 p.m. Thursday said he had seen fish below the pool jumping out the water as if for air.
David Musil contacted the DNR through its Spills Hotline (1-800-943-0003) and met a warden there later in the evening. Water samples were collected, but the source of the damage could not be determined at that hour.
When a Patch reporter visited the site Friday, foam was still present but dissipated compared to the earlier photos. A visit was paid to the power plant at 2 p.m., just in time to witness the last two fire trucks departing and leaving behind a coating of white foam around a partially covered sewer grate.
Assistant Fire Chief Erke, contacted about the possibility of the foam retardant being responsible for the fish kill, said that it was the first he had heard of the problem but even without investigating, he assumed responsibility on the part of the Fire Department.
No toxicity remains in retention pond
During the process of fighting the coal fire, Erke said, a highly diluted foam agent called F500, approved for that particular use, had been applied through the Fire Department's extensive hose lines reaching up six floors, and those lines had to be flushed.
"I'm surprised, and very sorry," Erke said. "It was diluted on the order of 1 percent per gallon, it's entirlely non-toxic to humans and animal life – it's actually safe to drink – and we did cover the manhole and were picking up the water."
Erke acknowledged though, that given the description and the proximity, it was undeniable that enough diluted foam had escaped the containment to cause the kill.
How so, if it's not toxic?
"The foam works by denying oxygen to the fire," Erke said. Over the course of 20 hours, a thick coating of foam would also have denied oxygen to the fish in a small pool of water.
Erke offered Friday afternoon to investigate the site and provide a pumper truck to flush and oxygenate the pool if it appeared that would be helpful.
That probably wouldn't have been necessary even by then. DNR spills specialist Scott Ferguson, who revisited the site Friday, said he saw live, apparently healthy fish already returning to the pool without distress.
Ferguson said he also found the firefighting foam explanation inescapable and said it was good news, because it means there is no toxicity to linger in the water or sediments of the pond.