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With Chemical Fire Out, Apex Residents Go Home

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Apex Residents Return Home
APEX, N.C. — Thousands of residents urged to evacuate their homes because of a fire at a hazardous material plant began to return Saturday after spending two nights at shelters, in hotels or staying with family and friends.

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said Saturday morning that a fire at EQ Industrial Services had been extinguished and that 90 percent of the town's residents could begin returning. By noon, the town lifted the evacuation for the entire town.

"We've been given every assurance that it's safe for our citizens to go back home," Weatherly said.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze at EQ Industrial Services, which led Apex to urge more than 17,000 people to leave their homes, at 12:22 a.m., said Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway.

Industrial businesses within a one-block radius around the facility on Investment Boulevard, however, remained closed as investigators continued their probe into what caused the fire and just what chemicals might have been involved. It was not immediately clear when that area would be reopened.

"We're going to control that area and keep people away for their own safety," said Apex Police Chief Jack Lewis.

The evacuation was lifted and residents were allowed to return home under a five-phase plan.

Residents who live in zones 1 and 2 -- the orange and green areas on the re-entry map issued Saturday morning -- were allowed to return to their homes starting at 8 a.m. -- Those areas are immediately east of N.C. Highway 55 and south of U.S. Highway 64.

Residents who live in zones 3 and 4 -- the areas closest to the downtown area, noted on the re-entry map in blue and purple -- were allowed to return to their homes starting at 9 a.m.

The area closest to the fire, Zone 5, which is highlighted in yellow on the re-entry map, remained closed for several more hours before authorities allowed residents to return.

Chemical analyses of the surrounding area Friday detected no toxins at levels sufficient to cause long-term health problems. Air monitoring by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and private consultants, along with state and local responders, found that, except in the immediate vicinity of the facility, concentrations of volatile organic compounds were below any level of concern.

There should be no residual chemicals, odors or vapors, officials determined, and did not think there is a significant health risk or will be any side effects. They encouraged residents to seek medical attention, however, if they started showing symptoms, such as respiratory or breathing problems or unexplained skin irritations.

Although it is not necessary, returning residents who have concerns about chemical residue may take the following precautions:
  • Shower and wash clothes thoroughly.
  • Change heat and air filters.
  • Wash bedclothes.
  • Wipe or wash counters with water or mild soap.
  • Wash children's toys.
  • Bathe pets and wash pet toys and food and water containers, particularly if these items are kept outside.
Firefighters used heavy machinery to pull away the twisted metal that had been guarding the heart of the smoldering fire, fed by industrial wastes including paints, solvents, pesticides and weed killer. It released a plume of thick black smoke and a yellow cloud of noxious gases after it started late Thursday with a series of thundering explosions that lit up the night sky.

Worried officials urged more residents to leave their homes, but were unsure how many complied.

"With the hazardous materials, you really don't want to take a risk, especially with small children," said Shane McDonnell, who was back at home after spending two nights with his wife and four kids -- ages 13, 12, 8 and 3 -- at an Embassy Suites in nearby Cary. "You don't want anything getting into their respiratory system at an early age."

There were no reports of serious injuries caused by the fire or the chemical haze it produced. Officials said 44 people went to emergency rooms, most complaining of breathing problems, but nearly all had been released by midday Friday.

Shelters took in several hundred people after the fire started late Thursday, but just 30 remained Friday night when officials of EQ Industrial offered to send them to hotels. All but five people accepted the offer.

"We just treated it like we were camping," said Tim Carley, who, along with his family, pulled into the driveway of his Apex home just minutes after the evacuation was lifted. "And the only person stressed out was our dog."

That evacuation disrupted the lives of thousands. Schools were closed Friday, along with downtown Apex. Nearly every high school football game in the county was canceled.

Cause Of Blaze Still Being Probed

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were testing onsite Saturday, and a team from the

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) arrived to assess the incident and determine what might have happened, why it might have happened, and what can be done to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

CSB Chairwoman Carolyn W. Merritt said the team would also look at the company's emergency preparedness and response as well as the community's knowledge about the facility.

The CSB does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations and regulatory agencies, such as the EPA.

As to what caused the fire, Haraway said Saturday morning that officials still don't know, nor do they know what chemicals or hazardous material might have burned.

"Because of the many different types of waste that we bring in, it's very difficult to determine the cause of the fire," EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said.

State Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials said Friday their tests "had not detected anything out of the ordinary in the air." The state also determined that water supplies downstream from the fire appeared to be safe, though they were still conducting additional tests.

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 non-sudden release of hazardous waste ... which could threaten human health or the environment."

Doyle cautioned the violations might not have had anything to do with the fire, and the state said the company had passed a required inspection as recently as Sept. 28-29.

Last year, a similar fire at one of the company's plants in Romulus, Mich., drove about 2,000 people from their homes and sent at least 32 people to hospitals for treatment.

An investigation is still active, said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He said in an e-mail that extensive damage from the fire had made it difficult to determine a cause and whether there were any violations at the plant.

Also Friday, two Apex residents filed suit in state court against EQ, seeking damages for the loss of use and enjoyment of their property. The suit, which seeks class-action status, also asks for punitive damages and an order directing EQ to pay for environmental and medical testing.

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