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Apex Marks First Anniversary of Chemical Fire

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of a chemical fire that forced the evacuation of 17,000 Apex residents. But a year later, the state has yet to revoke Environmental Quality's operating permit, and the company is fighting to reopen in Apex.

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APEX, N.C. — One year ago, 17,000 Apex residents – more than half the town – evacuated their homes, fearing that a fire at a hazardous-waste facility could release a toxic cloud.

Since then, the state has tightened laws regulating hazardous-waste facilities, and Environmental Quality Industrial Services has paid out more than $200,000 in reimbursements to the town of Apex and its residents.

The leak at the EQ plant on Investment Boulevard sent several large plumes of chlorine gas into the air. A large fire broke out, sending flames more than 100 feet into the sky and setting off multiple explosions. The fire raged for more than a day.

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly remembered feeling uncertainty in the first hours of the emergency.

"The emergency personnel, the police and fire, and responders from other counties were trying to deal with a situation we couldn’t come to grips with as far as what the chemicals were, what the hazard was posed for our community," Weatherly said.

Apex resident Greg Holder said he won't ever forget the day a potentially toxic cloud hung over him.

“It was really a scary ordeal, because you didn't know what was going to happen next,” Holder said. “I mean, it was like the sun, at sunset; it was just super orange, super bright."

A year later, Holder said he hasn't noticed any long-term effects, but Apex Gymnastics has. The business near the EQ plant was shut down for a month after the fire.

“I did go to great lengths to have the facility tested and hazmat team come in and clean the facility,” Jean Sciacca, owner of Apex Gymnastics, said.

Sciacca said profits from her business are down 30 percent, but she is hopeful Apex Gymnastics will bounce back.

“I have absolutely no plans to move,” Sciacca said.

In March, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources levied a $550,000 fine against EQ and recommended taking away the company's license. But seven months later, EQ still has its license and wants to reopen the Apex facility.

DENR officials said they are carefully considering every possible legal issue involved in revoking EQ's license.

"It has been a year, and we are eagerly awaiting a final resolution to that permit," Weatherly said. "We feel that it would be appropriate to revoke the permit for EQ to do business in North Carolina."

Even if EQ keeps its license, Apex will not let the company rebuild in the town, Weatherly said.

"Our ordinances in Apex had been changed in the year 2000 not to allow hazardous-waste facilities anywhere in our jurisdiction," he said.

When the town ordinances were originally passed, the EQ plant was grandfathered in.

Weatherly praised new state laws that require more oversight of chemical plants and orders hazardous-waste facilities to provide inventories of chemicals stored on-site.

At EQ, firefighting efforts were hampered, because crews did not know what chemicals they could potentially face inside the burning building.

State law then required hazardous waste facilities to give state leaders lists of chemicals they handled but not updated inventories. State agencies were responsible for conducting inspections.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board did not determine a cause of the chemical leak, but said unspent oxygen canisters contributed to the fire's rapid spread.

Weatherly said the biggest lesson he has learned from the experience is to depend on good planning and quick action when dealing with emergencies.

"Our citizens should be reassured that they’re well protected in case of an emergency." he said. "Other municipalities are as well, with the assistance they provided to us during this time of need. We’re thankful for that."