The April 7 explosion at the OneH2 hydrogen plant in Long View cracked ceilings and blew in windows.
People who live nearby say the damage went beyond homes, striking at the health and peace of mind of those living in the community.
Julious Smith was sitting in his home when the explosion happened.
Since that time, he’s been dealing with a persistent ringing noise that he describes as similar to crickets. He said the doctor told him the sounds might not go away.
His wife Sarah Smith was at work when she received a call from her distraught husband. “Now, this man is almost 80 years old and he’s a strong man for 80, but he called me crying when that happened,” Sarah Smith said.
Doris Bolick was standing in her living room when her door was blown open.
“All the pictures started flying off the wall, light fixtures wobbling,” Bolick said. “It was terrifying. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and hope I never do again.” She described seeing a fireball and initially thinking it was a tornado. Now, she said the wind makes her jumpy.
The plant is shuttered at the moment but the prospect of it opening again has provoked anxiety in the neighborhood. Many are worried another explosion could happen.
The people who live near the plant said they’ve had concerns about the plant since it opened. Their complaints include bright lights coming from the plant at night and noise, including what some residents described as the sound of small explosions.
“We kept saying, 'Well we keep hearing these small ones, going to be a big one of these days,'” Bolick said.
Paul Dawson, the president and CEO of the company, said residents were hearing noise from construction and not explosions.
Several members of the community said they did not feel the town has taken their concerns about the plant seriously.
Town Administrator David Draughn said no one made any complaints about the plant until the explosion. The property has been zoned industrial for decades, Draughn said. The building was vacant before OneH2 moved in and prior to that was occupied by the tool manufacturer Forest City Tool.
Draughn said no public input was required for the company to come in because the use was permitted by the zoning there. There were no meetings where the safety of the operation was discussed, Draughn said, adding that county inspectors looked at the facility before it opened.
One member of the community, Natasha Walker, started a petition demanding the plant not reopen in the neighborhood. The online petition surpassed its initial goal of 1,000 signatures and was only 39 votes shy of its 1,500 signature goal on Friday afternoon.
The objective is not to get the company to close completely, Walker said, but to have it move from their neighborhood.
Walker, 30, said some of the older people in the neighborhood are worried they won’t be taken seriously because of their age and are looking to Walker and her husband to be their advocates. Some residents have considered moving while others believe they would not be able to, Walker said.
At 72, Bolick said moving is not an option for her. “I’ll just be having to live down here scared to death and jump at every little sound, but I’m doing that now,” Bolick said.
Kevin Griffin is the City of Hickory reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.
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