Credit: Photo from Glynn County Sheriff's Office via Facebook.

Updating regularly throughout Monday. Updated at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7, 2022 to include lifting of evacuation orders. Updated Nov. 8. 2022 to include EPD response.

An early morning fire and multiple explosions Monday at the Symrise Chemical Plant at Colonel’s Island forced the evacuation of the plant itself as well as nearby neighborhoods including The Hickory Bluff, Sanctuary Cove, Satilla Shores and Royal Oaks. Schools located between one and three miles away sheltered in place for the school day.

An aerial view of the Symrise plant in 2017. Photo by James Holland.

Glynn County officials said the chemical source of the fire was hydrogen peroxide pinene, which is manufactured at the plant. No Symrise employees were injured in the blast or fire, which started during a shift change with 4-8 employees present.

About 1,400 people in 500 households live within a three-mile radius of the site, according an Environmental Protection Agency database.

By 8:30 a.m. Monday the fire was still deemed “uncontrolled” by the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department. But by noon, Glynn County officials reported the fire was contained and will likely burn out. One firefighter was treated for a minor injury. Fire units include Camden, Glynn, Nahunta, Brunswick, Savannah and a hazardous materials unit from Jacksonville, Fla.

By 6:30 p.m. the evacuation order for Satilla Shores and Royal Oaks was lifted, and the temporary shelter at Ballard Gym was shutting down, the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook.

“Progress was slowed earlier in the day because a tank was not vented safely, and the responders were pulled back to safety,” the post indicated.

“Crews will be finalizing the monitoring of tanks, shutdown of valves and extinguishing spot fires on the site. They will then go in and coat the area with a foam blanket. This will suppress the fumes from the plant and help cool any hot spots that may be left.

“The State Fire Marshall will be given entry to the location to begin the investigation of the blaze. Once he has cleared the scene, company officials will have the plant turned back over to them.”

About Symrise

Symrise describes itself as “a global supplier of fragrances, flavors, cosmetic active ingredients and raw materials as well as functional ingredient.” The Germany-based company operates in more than 40 countries. Its clients include manufacturers of perfumes, cosmetics, food and beverages, the pharmaceutical industry and producers of nutritional supplements and pet food.

Last year Symrise announced plans to expand at its 188-acre Colonel’s Island site with an $18.6 million investment. Glynn County approved a bond resolution providing Symrise with a 10-year property tax savings schedule, Area Development magazine reported at the time.

The facility has been in operation since 1981, though previously under different ownership. State regulators describe its operation as processing alpha pinene — the chemical that gives pine trees their signature scent and is the major component of turpentine — into fragrances, compounds and flavors. Alpha pinene is a type of terpene, a class of natural products, many of which are derived from conifers.

On Monday afternoon, Camden Emergency Management Agency received reports of a “chemical smell in parts of the county outside of the shelter in place area,” the agency posted on Facebook. “We have confirmed that the smell is due to terpenes coming from the chemical plant incident in Brunswick. Terpenes are naturally occurring chemical compounds. This can be an irritant to individuals with asthma or other breathing issues. However, it should not be considered toxic.”

“Pine-Sol is one of their (Symrise’s) clients,” said Susan Inman, mid coast advocate for One Hundred Miles. She cautioned against connecting that familiarity to safety.
‘Well, just because a chemical’s in your house doesn’t mean that it’s safe. You know, like bleach is another example. It’s a commonly used cleaner. But yet you also need to use it with caution.”

Regulatory issues

Responding hazmat teams monitored the air for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, oxygen, and hydrogen sulfide, Georgia EPD spokeswoman Sara Lips wrote in an email Tuesday. Minimal detections were recorded. EPD and US EPA conducted additional surveys and determined that no additional air monitoring is required. With the fire extinguished no air emissions are occurring.

Lips wrote that the air quality downwind from the facility was affected during the initial stages of the fire response. This prompted local emergency management officials to issue shelter-in-place and evacuation orders. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s safety data sheet for the primary chemical involved in the fire, alpha-Pinene, states the products of combustion were likely carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pyrolysis products typical of burning organic material, according to Lips. Residents should consult with a healthcare professional if they have any concerns about their health, she wrote.

The water used to fight the fire was primarily contained.  EPD and US EPA are conducting site assessments to determine if any escaped the site and if so, to what extent.  Remedial contractors are currently mitigating this release and will remain on site until the environmental impacts have been mitigated.   Some firefighting foam was applied that contained PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a so-called “forever” class of chemicals that persists in the environment. Some PFAS chemicals may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals, the USEPA reports.

The Colonel’s Island site was the subject of environmental scrutiny earlier this year when state regulators at the Environmental Protection Division issued it a hazardous waste facility post-closure permit. The waste on site is mainly a result of leaking underground pipes, said Rachael Thompson, executive director of the watchdog group Glynn Environmental Coalition. The EPD determined that the slow movement of groundwater in the area and the natural breakdown of the leaked chemicals meant that continued monitoring but no additional treatment would be sufficient to keep the waste contained on the site.

That isn’t expected to change because of the fire.

“At this time, there is limited concern for the fire exacerbating this situation; however, this is also being evaluated,” Lips wrote. 

EPA lists no significant current violations of Symrise’s Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act (hazardous waste) permits. It has been subject to seven informal enforcement actions over the last five years related to the Clean Water Act and one related to the Clean Air Act.

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...