Local News

Chemical Fire's Cause May Never Be Known

Posted October 12, 2006

— U.S. investigators might never know what caused a chemical fire at an Apex hazardous-waste transfer facility, but they might be able to come up with some likely scenarios.

  • Video:

    Cause Of Apex Fire May Never Be Known

  • Video:

    Oct. 12 Chemical Safety Board News Conference

    Evidence at the Environmental Quality Industrial Services site was extensively destroyed in the Oct. 5 fire, said Robert Hall, the lead investigator on the

    U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

    four-member team working on the case.

    During a news conference Thursday, Hall said the team had wrapped up its initial investigation, which consisted of taking samples from the site, as well as photographs, videos and interviews with more than 20 employees of the facility.

    Hall said the team also met with town officials, emergency responders, as well as about a half-dozen Apex residents and business owners. Nearly 17,000 residents were forced to leave the town and businesses had to close as firefighters monitored the blaze and allowed it to burn.

    Investigators also requested that EQ turn over documentation that describes the company's operational policies, work practices and past accidents and provide an extensive description of the chemicals in the building at the time of the fire.

    In March, the state fined EQ $32,000 for six violations at the plant, including failing to take steps to "minimize the possibility of a sudden or nonsudden release of hazardous waste." But the state said the company had passed a required inspection as recently as Sept. 29.

    Hall said he could not say whether the company was at fault for the fire.

    "We have not done enough investigation at this point in time to really comment on EQ's preparation," he said. "It's definitely something we want to look at."

    The team will also look at a similar fire that happened last year at one of EQ's plants in Romulus, Mich. During that incident, more than 2,000 people from forced to leave their homes.

    By analyzing all the information, Hall said, investigators would then be able to decide whether to launch a full investigation into the fire. That process could take up to three weeks, he said, and a full investigation could take up to a year to complete.

    The Chemical Safety Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations and regulatory agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Its main purpose, Hall said, is to help prevent similar accidents from occurring and to learn from the ones that have.

    Scott Meyer, of Don't Waste Arizona, a nonprofit environmental group based out of southern Phoenix, Ariz., is also in Apex working with a local attorney to inform residents about what they can do to help prevent similar chemical accidents like last week's.

    The group was formed after Meyer and the community he lived in endured two toxic fires at two different companies. It looked at neighboring plants in the area and took legal actions to fix the problems.

    "The pattern (that) was there was widespread incompliance with the law," Meyer said.

    Many companies in Apex deal with some sort of chemical. Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said he has not ruled out putting those companies through further scrutiny, and if the town were not satisfied with state and federal inspections, the town would do more.

    "Where it is appropriate to do so, we want to assume that responsibility, because that's what our people expect," Weatherly said. "Our citizens in Apex expect their local government to be accountable for what's in our town, and we expect to do so."

    Weatherly also said Thursday that last week's fire brought fear and apprehension to the community and that he did not want EQ to rebuild. The town's attorney is investigating whether the company would even be allowed to rebuild under zoning laws passed in 2003.

    Weatherly said the town might release its findings Friday.

    Cleanup has not yet started at the EQ site, which Hall described Thursday as "a pile of charred debris." The state's Division of Waste Management said the burned debris is considered hazardous waste and must be removed. Among the major tasks which must take place are categorizing the materials, determining where they will go and how they will be treated.

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