CINCINNATI -- Donna Jones didn’t have to leave her yard in Lower Price Hill to experience the spectacular five-alarm blaze at Queen City Barrel 10 years ago.
She watched from across Eighth Street as the bright red flames danced in the darkening sky and black smoke drifted far beyond her neighborhood, just one bridge away from downtown Cincinnati.
And she heard the popping noises that at first made her think her house’s windows were shattering from the force of the conflagration.
But because she knew more about the industrial barrel processing company than many of her neighbors, Jones soon realized that every loud pop she heard signaled the bursting of another lid from a barrel that held the remains of chemicals and compounds she didn’t want in her neighborhood.
As a member of the Lower Price Hill Environmental Leadership Group, an initiative launched by the now-disbanded non-profit Urban Appalachian Council, Jones had spent years studying the company and its record of environmental violations.
She suspected that every pop’s colorful spark represented something toxic—environmental investigators later found the smoke contained carcinogens like benzene and styrene and neurotoxins like toluene and central nervous system irritants like xylene.
As Jones watched, she worried for her family and her neighbors.
Kids lined up along the Eighth Street viaduct to watch the many-hued “fireworks” exploding in the air as tens of thousands of melting industrial waste barrels spewed their contents into the sky.
Jones made no secret of her distrust of Queen City Barrel, the barrel cleaning company. She complained to the city and the Environmental Protection Agency. She had taught her children and their friends when and how to document and report possible violations. She had given countless toxic tours of the neighborhood where she’d lived most of her life.
But what happened in the months following the 2004 fire still haunts her.
“When the Queen City Barrel fire happened, it seemed like right after that, and it’s not an exaggeration, it seemed like this community was doing funerals every week for a long time, sometimes two a week,” she said. “It wasn’t just the old people and sick people.”
About 160 firefighters from more than 20 fire departments battled the blaze, which dominated local news coverage for days as it wafted over Downtown toward Clifton. Officials told residents to shut their windows, turn off their air conditioners and “shelter in place.”
Ten years later, no one knows for sure what sparked the fire that quickly swallowed the 400,000-square-foot warehouse and lead to its collapse. Investigators said the fire, one of the city's worst, was too hot and too encompassing to determine where it started, let alone what started it.
Business owner Eddie Paul blames a pallet company renting space in the warehouse for the spark that ignited the fire that caused $5 million in damage.
The facts are complicated: Hours before the warehouse caught fire, the city of Cincinnati offered $1.2 million to buy and redevelop it. Two years later, the city paid $1.625 million for the barren land.
Post-fire investigators declared the site a public nuisance and counted more than 40,000 intact and partially burned barrels. More than 10,000 barrels located around the property weren’t empty, which they were supposed to be in order to be cleaned and processed.
The property, now sparsely dotted with grass and dirt, has been marketed by the city as MetroWest since April 2013 when a consultant deemed it was clean. But it was only earlier this summer that the EPA officially cleared the site for new construction.
Despite unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, questions, the 2004 fire marked an important milestone in Lower Price Hill’s environmental justice efforts. Though the smoldering fire subsided, neighbor’s kept a watchful eye not only on the clean-up efforts, but on each other.
‘Nobody Suffers Grief Alone’
When someone dies in Lower Price Hill, word spreads quickly.
It seems anachronistic in an age when even making a phone call can seem uncomfortably intimate, but in the close-knit neighborhood with roots buried in small towns tucked along the Appalachian Mountains, when it comes to funerals, everyone is family.
Though nearly half the neighborhood families live below the poverty level, those with little to spare donate to help families with expenses. Local businesses chip in what they can. The traditional community service, which happens in a church basement or school cafeteria sometime after the burial, includes storytelling and praying, a chance to laugh together and eat together.
“The whole community goes into action,” said Mike Henson, one of the founders of the Urban Appalachian Council, a neighborhood non-profit that served the migrants to Cincinnati and their kin for more than 40 years. “Nobody suffers grief alone.”
PHOTOS: The people of Price Hill
Henson never lived in the neighborhood but worked for UAC’s environmental programs for more than eight years. He’d allot more time to walk to a meeting in the neighborhood because he knew he’d be invited to sit a spell along the way, he said.
“It’s a human community that insists on human communication,” he said.
Jones knew her neighbors well enough to find disturbing similarities in their health problems, even before the fire, she said. Respiratory ailments were near universal. Cancer combinations felled even the strongest community members.
A WCPO analysis of Health Department data from 2003 to the beginning of 2014 shows that people who lived in three areas closest to the Queen City Barrel site were at least three times more likely than their neighbors to die from respiratory ailments, including lung cancer. They were also twice as likely as their Lower Price Hill peers to die from diseases associated with chemicals released in the fire.
After spending most of her life with neighbors like Queen City Barrel and dozens of other industries, including the Metropolitan Sewer District, within blocks of playgrounds and Oyler School, Jones scoffs at the idea that her neighbors’ health complaints stem strictly from their own bad habits.
“Everyone down here doesn’t have a bad eating habit, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, lives very healthy and they still got sick,” she said. “It’s easy to blame the people who are sick.”
From Hollers to Hillsides
Many families in Lower Price Hill stretch back generations in the neighborhood. They are proud descendants of Appalachian families who fled closing coal mines and poverty in the Great Migration of the 1940s. They found factory work and hope for their children’s futures in Cincinnati’s inner-city neighborhoods, especially those that sat at the bases of hillsides. Many found good jobs and moved to the suburbs to raise their families. Others chose to stay close to where they or their parents landed. Still others fell on hard times.
These Urban Appalachians share lasting traits with their mountain kin; a sense of cultural pride and institutional distrust, and a devotion to family, defined broadly, above all.
Those family connections inspire poetry and ensure that stories about triumphs and tragedies are shared equally. Those family connections, maintained at laundromats and Sunday services, also kept the stories of Queen City Barrel alive.
Urban Appalachian scholar and social researcher Michael Maloney said the neighbors’ bonds also enabled them to launch an effective environmental justice movement. He was a founding member and early director of the Urban Appalachian Council and spent time in its Lower Price Hill office in the early 1970s, which is when he got to know the neighborhood.
“The physical closeness is kind of like a coal camp,” said Maloney. “It can be pretty easy to organize in a coal camp because people know each other and are close-knit.”
An Alphabet Soup of Toxic Waste
Donna Jones didn’t set out to be an environmental activist. But in conversations with other mothers at playgrounds and school meetings, she heard stories that echoed those of her own family.
And she got angry.
She said it was like every kid in the neighborhood got a headache on days when the smell of paint and chemicals permeated the air and left the taste of metal on everyone’s tongues.
One day when the smells were particularly noxious, one of Jones’ daughters got so sick she had to take her to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital twice in one day. After first being diagnosed with a virus, the 8-year-old was eventually admitted to the hospital. No one ever explained to Jones what caused her child’s nausea or hallucinations.
Jones decided to take action. She joined environmental justice efforts that had gotten a kick start with the 1990 Lower Price Hill Task Force, an Urban Appalachian Council project that set the stage for decades of environmental and educational activism.
Made up of university epidemiologists, social historians, local environmental advocates and citizen researchers, the Task Force included former Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who was working as director of the non-profit Ohio Citizen Action.
After two years of investigations and research, the group issued a scathing report about environmental polluters who were regularly breaking laws, as well as details about shockingly high numbers of children facing health issues. It included 27 pages dedicated specifically to the business practices of Queen City Barrel.
• Lower Price Hill children in Cincinnati Public Schools had twice as many learning disabilities as children in other neighborhoods.
• Lower Price Hill children under 5 years old were five times more likely to suffer from respiratory infections, and twice as likely to have rashes and central nervous system diseases and ear infections as their counterparts in other Appalachian neighborhoods in the city.
• Lower Price Hill children were almost twice as likely to suffer from “failure to thrive” as their counterparts in other Appalachian neighborhoods in the city.
• Lower Price Hill children were 11 times more likely to suffer from toxic effects from non-medical substances as their counterparts in other Appalachian neighborhoods in the city.
Task Force member Pauletta Hansel, then a board member of UAC, compiled much of the research about community polluters. She filed public records requests, worked with researchers and learned a lot about the 19 regulated industries then operating in the neighborhood of just more than one-half of a square mile.
Time and again, one company stood out as a blatant violator, Hansel said.
In the 1980s, Queen City Barrel went years without a valid permit for or acceptable emissions from the incinerator where it burned industrial drums. Between 1986 and 1989, the company violated visible emissions regulations 40 times. In 1989, both the EPA and the State of Ohio sued Queen City Barrel for violating the Clean Air Act.
Between 1992 and 1995, the city fined the company a total of $30,000 after a series of neighborhood complaints about the noxious smells that drifted through playgrounds and into homes.
Burnt paint odors from around Queen City Barrel made nearby workers and students at Oyler School sick in 2000, and Hamilton County cited the company for failing to test its emissions. In 2003, one year before the fire, the EPA fined the company close to $27,000 for painting barrels without a permit.
“Queen City Barrel had a history of taking in barrels that were not even legally empty and of not following guidelines for how those were cleaned and disposed of,” said Hansel, who later joined UAC’s staff and helped launched neighborhood environmental justice initiatives.
She remembers documenting a chemical alphabet soup of carcinogens and neurotoxins released into the air by the company, the kind of chemicals that can trigger ailments like headaches, dizziness, nausea and burning throats.
“We didn’t dump things on our site. We didn’t do things that would have really created major issues,” he said. “We closed that site with little or no problems.”
Still, Task Force members carefully avoided drawing conclusions, in part because of the preponderance of industries in Lower Price Hill at the time and the near impossibility of proving specific cause-and-effect relationships between industry and illness. Instead, they focused on documented facts.
“There were higher rates of the illnesses and there was also the existence of environmental pollution and a long history of violations,” Hansel said. “Whatever is causing these health problems in children, the pollution can’t be good.”
From Advocacy to Organizing
While industries and even the city’s Health Department balked at the Task Force’s findings, city leaders paid attention.
In the wake of the report, the city established the Office of Environmental Management in 1992. Hansel was on the advisory committee that selected the group’s first director. That office has evolved into what is now called the Office of Environment and Sustainability .
Initially, the OEM helped step up enforcement of existing nuisance laws as a way to address the local impact of polluters on citizens.
While regulatory agencies spent months and sometimes years negotiating with polluters, the local group ensured that the city could be more responsive and fine businesses whose odors hurt neighbors’ quality of life, Hansel said.
“In general, it made it more difficult for companies in Lower Price Hill to act with impunity,” Hansel said. “It became a lot more difficult for organizations to ignore the health problems.”
Still, she understood that the research itself was not enough. In order for sustained change, neighbors needed to take action.
“One of the things that I’d been concerned about in terms of the work in Lower Price Hill was that it was all advocacy and no organizing,” she said. She wanted to equip neighbors to chart their own courses for the future.
The Urban Appalachian Council took the lead in environmental organizing and hired Hansel as director of program and advocacy in 1994.
With help from neighbors like Jones, UAC launched environmental leadership programs for youth and adults. The organization found high-level support with an environmental justice grant from the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences in 1998.
They grew strong together and shared that strength by going door to door and talking with their neighbors, comparing experiences and sharing concerns.
“I’ve always been impressed by folks in Lower Price Hill,” said Hansel, whose first trip to the neighborhood reminded her of a journey to the small town of Jackson, Ky. “People’s care about each other and family, their willingness to educate themselves and to use their own education to educate others.”
‘We Developed Leaders’
“Nobody was an environmental professional,” said former environmental group leader Mike Henson of Lower Price Hill leaders like Jones. “They were just folks and they cared about their community and they were willing to put themselves on the line to talk about these issues. They might not have had a lot of education, but they were no dummies.”
Jones, who went on to become president of the Lower Price Hill Community Council, doesn’t hesitate to speak out against new industries if their business plans include environmental hazards.
“We need industry,” Jones said. “But what I’m saying is you don’t have to kill the people around you to have it.”
Ten years after the fire, Jones still loves living in Lower Price Hill. After the Urban Appalachian Council laid her off last December—it shut down operations completely in the spring—she helped open BlocHead Pizza on State Avenue where she’s the general manager.
She’s been able to hire a few former members of the Youth Environmental Project to work alongside her; one applied to make pizzas as a second job to earn some extra income and spend time with Jones again.
Her kids have moved away—not far, but far enough that the occasional sewage smells from MSD can’t reach them. They visit Jones often and bring along their babies and grandchildren for her Sunday breakfasts and meatloaf.
Though they’d like for her to move away from the neighborhood where crimes make more headlines than new businesses, she has no intention of leaving.
Jones sees the legacy of Queen City Barrel, like the legacy of her environmental advocacy work, as a reflection of the neighborhood’s often underestimated strength.
“We took more control of what goes on down here,” she said. “We feel that we can make a difference.”
She’s especially proud of the generation to come, she said, the young people trained to keep an eye on industry and protect their dreams, both in the neighborhood and beyond.
“The young people who we worked with are doing things that are going to better the whole world, not just Lower Price Hill,” Jones said. “We developed leaders is what we did. We developed leaders.”
This article is part of of the series Rising from the Ashes, in which WCPO remembers the Queen City Barrel fire a decade later. We invite you to explore photos, an interactive timeline as well as articles about the former owner of the company, Eddie Paul, and the firefighters who battled the blaze at www.wcpo.com/QCBarrelFire.
A WCPO team of reporters interviewed firefighters, residents, environmental experts; reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative records and EPA findings as well as analyzed Hamilton County death records.
- Dan Monk, reporter
- Lucy May, reporter
- Elissa Yancey, contributing environmental reporter
- Keith Rutowski and Emily Maxwell, photographers
- Mark Nichols, data specialist
- Brian Niesz, multimedia producer/designer
- Anne Hallilwell, interactive timeline
- Maxim Alter, then and now graphic
- Chris Graves and David Holthaus, editors