Coos Bay, OR Officials Looking for Incinerator Permits

The city of Coos Bay can't find any planning records regarding an incinerator that was pinpointed as the cause of a fatal fire Nov. 25 and the state has no air quality permits for the furnace.

"We do not have a permit application for the incinerator or flue, which would then follow that we have no inspection reports," said Community Services Director Shanda Shribbs.

But it appears Coos Bay should have that permit paperwork on file for Farwest Truck & Auto Supply or Automotive Machine Service.

According to the Oregon Building Codes Division, the city is responsible for inspecting structural building projects, including what are termed mechanical installations. An incinerator fits that definition and would require an installation permit, department spokesman Steve Corson said today.

The state only inspects plumbing and electrical projects within the city. Any structural work that may have been done without a permit would be under Coos Bay jurisdiction, although the state might become involved in taking action or issuing penalties, he added.

"The details make the difference here in what the appropriate action would be and the city has the program under its responsibility," Corson said.

State Uniform Building Codes aren't the only rules governing installation and operation of incinerators.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is charged with regulating discharges of air pollution in the state. An incinerator also must have a permit from DEQ.

"We had never received a permit for this incinerator," said Martin Abts, DEQ's Air Quality Program natural resource specialist based in Coos Bay.

"In fact, our rules are situated such that a small incinerator like that would be impractical to operate by DEQ rules," he said.

An incinerator operator must do periodic pollution emission tests and, Abts said, permitting is expensive. He estimated it could cost a small company up to $2,000 a year.

More than a decade ago due to increasingly stringent emissions rules, many businesses particularly hospitals closed their incinerators because it was too costly to meet the rules.

According to Abts, the DEQ never received any complaints about pollution at Farwest.

An investigation conducted by the state fire marshal indicated last week's fire was ignited by heat from an incinerator used by Automotive Machine Service, an independent company owned by Jonathan E. Inskeep operating inside Farwest. The automotive machine shop used the incinerator to burn hydrocarbon wastes, the fire marshal report indicated.

The flue, which reached temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, apparently ignited a wall and roof structure inside the building and could have burned undetected for up to four hours before firefighters were called, according to fire investigators.

On the last Monday in November, Lt. Randy Carpenter and firefighters Jeff E. Common and Chuck Hanners were killed fighting a fire inside the burning structure. The men were battling a blaze that became ferocious when oxygen fed a smoldering fire. Chemical supplies including aerosol cans, paints, paint thinners and other chemicals inside the building then fueled the raging fire that shot plumes of black smoke hundreds of feet in the air.

Shribbs said city employees are continuing to scour records that may not have been computerized to track down any permits or inspections that may have been done at the building.

"We are continuing to try to determine if we have anything else and we'll make it available as soon as we can find it," Shribbs said.

Coos Bay's planning records of the building at 340 S. Second St. date back to 1956, when the operation was known as Littrell Supply Company, which at the time was owned by Portland-based Automotive Equipment Company.

According to records from the Coos County Assessor's Office, the structure was built in 1938 and remodeled in 1965. The 13,520-square-foot building was purchased in 1990 from First Farwest Leasing by Kim and Sandra Macfee for $92,000.

Its assessed value in 2002, according to the assessor's office, was $300,000. Kim Macfee owned and operated Farwest Truck and Auto Supply in the building.

According to city building records, Farwest was approved for a remodeling in 1993, when a roof was refitted on the aging building.

In January 2001, records show the city approved a business license for Automotive Machine Service and issued it a certificate indicating the company "was in compliance with the various ordinances of the city regulating building construction or use."

In March 2001, the city also approved plans submitted by Farwest to build a mezzanine for storage above the business' office. The interior work was done by Steve Auer Construction, of Coos Bay.

The Farwest building did undergo a fire inspection in October, according to Lt. Randy Miles, when firefighters conducted an investigation and inventory of the building. Miles said firefighters found minor infractions, such as faulty outlets or unapproved extension cords, but added no significant violations were recorded during the inspection.

"They're all going to have those types of things," Miles said. "It's not really a high target as a dangerous building in our district."

Miles, however, said firefighters knew that putting out a building fire at Farwest would cause complications due to its construction, which apparently allowed the blaze to hide for hours before it was discovered.

"Those types of structures are not firefighter friendly," Miles said. "We knew that it had some hazardous stuff in there that was going to feed the fire. We're aware of that stuff when we go in."

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting an investigation into the building and interviewing firefighters who were involved in the blaze. Miles said that report is expected to be completed in late January.

Shribbs said building inspector Joe McClay has been working with the state Fire Marshal to conduct an investigation into the building, what caused its roof to collapse so quickly during the blaze and its flue and furnace. McClay was not available for comment Monday.

City officials were mostly unavailable all day Monday. Many were reported to be in day-long administrative meetings. Late in the afternoon, a city employee said administrators would no longer answer questions about the fire or building although shortly thereafter, Shribbs responded to a public records request filed by The World newspaper.

Questions during the day were being referred to Melinda Merrill, a senior account executive with The Rockey Company, a Portland public relations firm that handled information during the grounded New Carissa removal. Merrill offered her services to firefighters freely after the collapse but it's unclear whether she was contracted to work for the city. Merrill said she was contacted by the city but the parties hadn't yet discussed compensation.

"They're completely overwhelmed," Merrill said Monday night. "They need some assistance to track down some information."

Merrill said at the time she didn't know how to answer questions about the city's permitting and had no information about the city's investigation relating to the incinerator or flue.

City Editor Elise Hamner contributed to this story.