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Inspectors: Oxygen Canisters Fanned EQ Fire

Posted June 27, 2007

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— Federal safety experts announced Wednesday that unspent oxygen canisters used on aircraft contributed to the rapid spread of a major chemical fire at an Apex hazardous waste operation last fall.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued an "urgent recommendation" to warn other hazardous waste facilities of the potential danger posed by the canisters, also known as oxygen generators because they create and release oxygen in a chemical reaction. The move marks only the third time in the agency's history that such a recommendation has been issued.

The Environmental Quality Industrial Services plant in Apex exploded in flames on Oct. 5, and the fire raged for more than a day before burning itself out. Fearing a toxic cloud had been released by the chemical fire, town officials ordered about 17,000 residents to leave their homes.

A preliminary investigation by the CSB determined the fire might have started in an area of the plant containing oxidizers, which are highly combustible. But investigators said the cause of the fire might never be known.

Further investigation found that the unspent oxygen generators, which are used to supply oxygen to drop-down masks on commercial aircraft that have depressurized, were stored nearby and played a role in fanning what had been a small fire.

"Whatever started the fire, the intensity with which these (generators) burn would have resulted in the rapid spread of the fire as fire departments responded that night," said Robert Hall, the CSB's lead investigator in the case.

The oxygen generators were similar to those implicated in the May 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades, killing all 110 passengers and crew.

The generators at the EQ plant were shipped from Mobile Aerospace Engineering Inc., an aircraft maintenance facility in Mobile, Ala., officials said. Although the devices were past their projected service life, they remained charged and hazardous when they were shipped to EQ for disposal, they said.

The generators also weren't labeled properly before shipping, he said, meaning EQ possibly didn't even know a potential hazard existed.

"They really did not not know the danger that these things posed," Hall said.

The CSB issued its urgent recommendation that Mobile Aerospace notify other hazardous waste handlers of the potential danger posed by the generators and that improper shipping codes might have been used in transporting them. The company also was urged to develop procedures to expend all of the oxygen from generators before shipping and to properly describe the devices on transport documents.

The agency did fault EQ for not having an adequate fire suppression system or firewalls in the plant, which officials said would have slowed the fire, and for not quickly informing firefighters what chemicals were stored in the facility.

EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said in a statement that the safety bulletin would improve precautions across the hazardous waste industry.

"This safety advisory alert will allow for safer management, transport and disposal of these oxygen generators at aircraft maintenance facilities and hazardous waste facilities,” Doyle said.

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said he never knew EQ had the oxygen generators on site until he was briefed by CSB officials Wednesday morning.

"This is the first we heard of it. After lengthy investigations and supposedly full disclosure by EQ of what their inventory was ... it's troubling," Weatherly said.

Apex officials maintain they will try to block any attempt by EQ to reopen the operation.

"We can but hope that other communities can learn from our local incident and join us in the efforts to ensure the appropriate siting of such facilities away from residential populations," Weatherly said in a statement.

State environmental regulators fined EQ more than $550,000 in March, citing a series of safety violations before the Oct. 5 fire. The company is fighting the fine and a state effort to revoke its operating permit.

A spokesman for the state Department of Envrironment and Natural Resources said the CSB's findings likely won't affect the permit revocation process. A decision on the company's future in North Carolina is expected next month, he said.

The fire prompted state officials to adopt stricter rules for hazardous waste operations, including providing updated lists of chemicals on site to state and local officials and to nearby residents and businesses. Gov. Mike Easley signed the new regulations into law Tuesday.


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  • Screename Jun 27, 2007

    cudamom, How did so many agencies jump to conclusion?

  • cudamom Jun 27, 2007

    It looks like the Town of Apex, NCDENR, Apex Fire Dept., etc, jumped to conclusions. The company that shipped the unstable oxygen generators to EQ and the state agency that should have inspected them should be at fault. They should be under the same inspections that EQ is under. EQ can only go by what the company that sends them shipments and by that company's inspections reports.

  • jetmech Jun 27, 2007

    I worked at mobile aerospace for 6 years. they were fined 100k shortly after the valuejet crash, for not shipping o2 generators properly.

  • auklet8718 Jun 27, 2007

    "Why is oxygen being sent to a chemical disposal waste site anyway. Just empty the Oxygen out and send the empty canister to a recycling center."


    These canisters work through a chemical process and are not just compressed gas. The reaction generates a LOT of heat. The canisters are considered checmical waste and must be disposed of as such. The problem was the airline or their disposal contractor didn't exhaust the reactive ingredents in the canister rendering them thermally inert before disposing of them.

  • runny29840 Jun 27, 2007

    "Why is oxygen being sent to a chemical disposal waste site anyway. Just empty the Oxygen out and send the empty canister to a recycling center."

    The canisters don't contain oxygen. They have a compond in them that makes oxygen. Oxygen is created by a chemical reaction, which also produces heat. When the canisters are exposed to external heat high enough, the heat can start the chemical reaction that produces oxygen, once started the reaction continues until the chemicals are used up.

    This is the same type of canister that caused they Valujet crash in Florida years ago.

  • bonowell Jun 27, 2007

    Why is oxygen being sent to a chemical disposal waste site anyway. Just empty the Oxygen out and send the empty canister to a recycling center.

  • mchlpickle Jun 27, 2007

    Oh my! I was thinking that they were going to tell everybody that they had 6 months to live after breathing the big green cloud. Big deal!! It's a case of my boss takes your boss out to lunch to see who's gonna make who's boat or house payment and life gets back to normal in good old corporate america.

  • ObamaMustGo aka NCcarguy Jun 27, 2007

    IT would be worse if one of the local car dealerships caught on fire.....I'm not sure why people panic over this that much???? and I live just down the street.

  • OLD PIRATE Jun 27, 2007

    Don't fine the business just to pay for the failed reports. Fine the city and even the state for their failure to inspect.
    The business is always the easy target for fines..guess what buckwheat, you and I pay the fine in the long run.

  • fl2nc2ca2md2nc Jun 27, 2007

    Of course the town knew about this business! They zoned the land, approved a hazardous processing biz to operate in the town, and issued permits. They also inspected it periodically as did other gov't agencies. The big issue with was that a state or county agency had just cited the company months before and never, I repeat, never notified Apex officials of this major detail.

    As for the reverse-911, they did use it; I know folks who got a call albeit too late if you ask me. We never received a call however and we are 1.5 miles from the EQ site.

    The town should've had a better notification/evacuation plan and they took care of this within days of this incident. A new system was announced & placed on the town's website within a week.

    I recommend that you ask whether _your_ town or city has a good plan in case of disaster or, in this day and age, terrorism should you need it rather than looking back at Apex's experience. This kind of thing could happen anywhere at any time.