Braintree Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio got the call she had long worried about just before 10:30 p.m. It was the mayor, Charles Kokoros.
“That’s when he told me: ‘Two-alarm fire, Clean Harbors,’ " she said.
The Clean Harbors facility in East Braintree is the largest hazardous waste disposal center in New England. It sits on the Fore River and handles toxic and dangerous materials from chemical companies, hospitals and other commercial businesses. And on Feb. 16, it caught fire.
Maglio’s call with the mayor was brief, but it was enough time for her to start worrying about worst-case scenarios: What if the fire spread to the nearby fuel tanks? There’s a fertilizer plant a few thousand feet away, could it get there? And what about the natural gas compressor station on the other side of the river?
For years, she'd been trying to warn others that the high concentration of industrial infrastructure in the area posed significant health and safety risks to residents. In fact, she ran for town council in 2021 in large part because she felt like local and state officials weren’t taking the concerns she and other activists had seriously.
After hanging up with Kokoros, Maglio ran out the front door.
“Behind the house across the street, I could see the fire and the smoke,” she said.
For several minutes, she watched a thick plume of smoke, grey and black and illuminated by the flashing blue and red lights of emergency responders, rise into the sky. At one point, she heard the "pop, and then another pop" of two small explosions.
Eventually her husband yelled for her to come back inside. For the next few hours, they watched from their living room window.
Maglio didn’t know it at the time, but the chemical fire at Clean Harbors would be a turning point in the fight she and other area activists have been waging for nearly a decade.
The fire at Clean Harbors exposed multiple weaknesses in the region’s emergency response plans, from effective public communication during an incident to the need for regional planning and more state support.
It began in one of the eight tractor trailers parked by a loading dock, which are used to temporarily store waste products that come into the facility for disposal. On the night of the fire, they contained things like paints, epoxies, oil filters and various other solvents. Around 10 p.m., something in one of them spontaneously ignited.
The flames spread quickly because there was no overhead sprinkler system by the loading dock. The first hydrant firefighters tried to tap didn’t have sufficient water pressure. Another nearby hydrant didn't work at all.
As they fought the flames, the firefighters also didn't know what was burning — the required placards on the outside of the trailers that list their contents melted.
“We were kind of just dousing with water. That's the only thing we could do,” Braintree Fire Chief James O’Brien said at a town council meeting in late February.
Luckily, the Clean Harbors representatives who arrived on site provided some helpful information. Firefighters now knew, for instance, to keep a steady stream of water on one particular trailer. It contained thousands of gallons of flammable fuel.
The fire was extinguished around 1 a.m. No one had been injured, though three trailers had completely burned and others were damaged.
During the fire, Kokoros, the mayor, opted not to initiate a reverse-911 robocall, which would call residents directly with a recorded message . Instead, he posted a note to the town’s Facebook page around 11 p.m. telling residents to stay inside and keep their windows closed. A lot of people in Braintree — let alone nearby Quincy and Weymouth — didn’t get the message.
The following morning, Maglio said her phone blew up with texts and calls from constituents. People wanted to know what chemicals burned, what they breathed in and whether it was safe to go outside.
“All I could say is what I knew, which was pretty much nothing,” she said.
The confusion and fear continued days after the fire. Clean Harbors wouldn’t reveal what was in the trailers, and state authorities only said that air quality wasn’t an issue.
Many were skeptical that they were getting accurate information. A 17-year-old girl down the street from Maglio woke up with red and puffy eyes after sleeping with her window open during the fire, her older sister, Zanah Taha, told WBUR. On social media, people wrote that they felt a burning sensation in their throats during the fire, or that the air smelled like melting plastic.
Looming in the background was the recent train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio , which raised similar questions and bred distrust in the authorities.
“We feel very unsafe,” Braintree resident Meghan Feldpausch said at a town council meeting in February. She had walked her children to school the morning after the fire.
“Were the kids in danger?” she asked.
“There's there's no way I can believe that there was no air pollution generated in that fire,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College and an expert in how toxic chemicals affect human health. “The facts speak for themselves; very, very high levels of particulates were recorded at several different air monitors in the neighborhoods surrounding the site.”
Gary Moran, acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said that, while short-term spikes like this are typical during a fire, the average levels of particulate matter over 24 hours — which is how air quality is often measured — didn’t exceed national health standards.
Landrigan called the 24-hour standard misleading in this situation.
“There is abundant data from clinical and epidemiological studies that short-term spikes in [particulate matter can] trigger cardiac arrhythmias, myocardial infarctions, and cardiac deaths,” he said.
Air pollution is especially risky for people with existing health conditions, and state data show that residents of Quincy, Weymouth and Braintree who live near the industrial waterfront of the Fore River have statistically significant higher rates of cancer, pediatric asthma and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases than the statewide average
Beyond particulate matter, Landrigan said he’s also concerned about other toxins that could have burned and become airborne during the fire.
“When a chemical fire takes place, lots of different materials are thrown into the air,” he said.
The state measures volatile organic compounds in Weymouth once a week, and it just so happened that the test began at midnight on Feb. 17, so it picked up most of the fire and its aftermath. Preliminary results show no concerning levels of dangerous toxins above typical background levels, Moran said.
But residents aren't satisfied. Maybe that area of Weymouth didn't have any toxins, they said. What about East Braintree or Quincy? The wind was blowing from multiple directions that night.
Clean Harbors and the state eventually released a list of what burned in three of the trailers. Experts WBUR showed it to said there were materials that could pose a human health risk if burned and inhaled. But without more information about where the smoke went, they added, it’s impossible to say anything conclusive about exposure.
In response to community concerns about air pollution, Clean Harbors hired an expert to do just that: map the plume. At a Braintree town council meeting on March 21, Dyron Hamlin of the consulting firm GHD said he looked at particulate matter and other air toxins, and concluded that “the emissions from this fire did not result in [pollution] levels that would result in adverse health risks to the community.”
More information is coming — Clean Harbors is legally required to assess potential air, water and ground contamination and submit a report to the state by the end of April. But many residents of Braintree, Weymouth and Quincy have been clear they don’t trust any expert or report paid for by Clean Harbors. They’re calling on local leaders to commission an independent study.
Residents and officials are also looking forward. Many have called the Clean Harbors fire a “near-miss” and say it highlights the need for better safety plans.
“Of course it’s going to happen again. And it could be even worse,” said Alice Arena, president of the environmental group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station. “They got cited [in 2007] for the same stuff.”
That year, Clean Harbors racked up 30 federal violations for mislabeling and mishandling waste. But there's no indication that this is what happened with the recent fire. In fact, the company says the material that combusted was “misrepresented” by a supplier.
Clean Harbors sits in the middle of what Arena calls “a circle of danger.” The Fore River basin — the area along the water where Quincy, Braintree and Weymouth meet — has a long history of pollution and is home to a lot of industry. There’s the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station, two power plants, two fuel tank farms, a chemical manufacturing facility and a plant that makes fertilizer.
“You've put all of these toxic, explosive facilities in one location that is surrounded by residential areas,” Arena said. She added that there are several state-designated “ environmental justice ” neighborhoods within a few miles of the basin.
For years, Arena and other activists have called for more permanent air monitors and a regional safety and evacuation plan.
Every city or town in Massachusetts is required to have an emergency response plan, but there’s no regional plan for how local officials would work together to streamline communication or evacuate people.
This is a densely populated area with only a few roads in and out, Arena said. What happens if cell towers get jammed or if the Fore River bridge, which has a habit of getting stuck open , isn’t passable?
“The people who live here deserve better,” she said.
In the wake of the fire, public officials have vowed to make improvements. Kokoros — who publicly apologized for not using the robocall system to alert residents about the fire — called for better fire suppression systems at Clean Harbors, and a review of how toxic chemicals are stored. O’Brien said his department should get more information about problematic hydrants on public and private property. Town councilors said they want companies like Clean Harbors to help pay for air quality monitors throughout the Fore River region. And everyone wants the state to help coordinate a regional emergency and evacuation plan.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said the department has not received a formal request for help, but noted that it “welcomes collaboration with local partners.”
Reflecting on the last few weeks, Maglio — the Braintree activist-turned-councilor —said she feels vindicated. She also hopes town leaders follow through.
This could be “a defining moment” for the region, she said. “This fire gives us an opportunity to do better.”
This segment aired on March 28, 2023.