Local News

Cleanup Efforts At Apex EQ Plant On Hold After Another Fire

Posted October 19, 2006
Updated December 22, 2006

— The North Carolina Division of Waste Management on Wednesday ordered a hazardous waste facility in Apex to shut down indefinitely, hours after emergency responders evacuated nearby businesses because of a small fire on the site.

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said the order from state regulators means the cleanup effort at the Environmental Quality Industrial Services facility following a chemical fire two weeks ago will be halted indefinitely.

Apex police will handle security at the site 24 hours a day, state officials said.

Shortly after noon Wednesday, a white plume of smoke could be seen above the remains of the EQ facility. There were also reports of a pungent odor in the air.

Firefighters managed to extinguish the smoldering chemical mix two hours after it began spouting smoke from a 55-gallon drum of sodium metal solution that can ignite when exposed to water or air. Rain had drenched the area for much of the day Tuesday.

No workers were near the barrel at the time, and no injuries were reported, but Weatherly said fumes produced by the fire reportedly caused burning eyes. Test results from the state Division of Air Quality showed no signs of any toxic materials in the air as of Wednesday afternoon.

"It's very frustrating to see something like this happen again," Weatherly said. "There's now additional apprehension among our folks, which is unfortunate."

Cleanup at the site was in its initial stages after the state on Tuesday approved EQ's cleanup plan. That plan anticipated the possibility of waste reactions and called for specific steps and safety procedures to be implemented in the event of a reaction.

The fire began when workers for the firm that EQ hired for the cleanup had stopped work to eat lunch, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

EQ said the drum had been identified as having dangerous material in it, but even after an inspection, officials did not know it was damaged.

"We were not aware of any punctures that may have caused this unfortunate incident," said EQ communications manager Bob Doyle during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The state has ordered EQ to provide a written report detailing the cause of Wednesday's fire and the steps being taken to ensure public safety. Waste management officials will determine if any additional measures should be required before allowing work to continue.

"We're trying to make sure that they are following the steps to the letter of their plan," said Diana Kees, a DENR spokeswoman.

Fire Prompts Evacuation, Fuels Frustration

The EQ facility caught fire on Oct. 5 and forced nearly 17,000 Apex residents from their homes in the middle of the night because of concerns of toxic fumes. Residents were only allowed to return to their homes after firefighters extinguished the blaze two days later.

Even though Wednesday's fire was small and contained shortly after the explosion, emergency officials evacuated a few dozen people from four businesses on Investment Boulevard as a precaution and blocked off the road while emergency officials responded. No residences were evacuated, but people affected by the first evacuation expressed worries about whether the area will ever be safe again.

"It's crazy," said Apex resident Barbara Ann Eagles. "I don't even understand what's going on anymore. It's very frustrating."

More than 200 concerned Apex residents like Eagles packed Apex Town Hall on Tuesday looking for answers about the blaze.

Though EQ officials have said tests found no harmful levels of toxins in the atmosphere, residents wanted to know more about their vegetable gardens, their children's health and the quality of their air. Some also asked whether the company would rebuild at the site -- a prospect town officials said they will do everything in their power to prevent.

"We cannot tolerate the continued operation of a hazardous-waste storage facility in Apex," Weatherly said. "Let me just say our concern -- and the point we will not forget -- is that EQ has exposed our citizens to an unprecedented level of danger."

The Michigan-based company has said a decision about rebuilding in Apex won't be made until cleanup is complete.

State regulators say more tests will be conducted on the ground and water and they expect to release a report on air quality later this week. Gov. Mike Easley has also announced that a task force will examine regulations for hazardous waste storage centers and recommend changes to tighten those rules.

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