Local News

Settlement reached over Apex chemical explosion

Posted July 23, 2009 12:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2009 10:10 p.m. EDT

— A federal judge on Thursday approved a preliminary settlement agreement to compensate Apex residents who had to leave their homes and businesses in October 2006 after an explosion and fire at a hazardous waste facility.

The Environmental Quality Industrial Services facility erupted into a fireball on Oct. 5, 2006, and officials ordered about 17,000 people to evacuate because they feared that toxic chemicals were in the plume of smoke that spread over Apex.

Residents sued EQ and some of the companies that sent oxygen canisters to the facility for disposal. Investigators have determined that improperly stored canisters caused the rapid spread of the fire throughout the facility.

Some residents alleged health problems from exposure to the smoke from the fire, but environmental tests taken during and after the evacuation showed no harmful effects from the plume.

Under the , which Senior U.S. District Judge Earl Britt signed off on, EQ and two Alabama-based companies agreed to pay up to $750 to each household that evacuated to compensate for the trouble of leaving their home and incidental expenses incurred. Businesses that were forced to close during the evacuation would receive up to $2,500.

The payments would be in addition to earlier payments from EQ to compensate for evacuation expenses.

Denise Hatzidakis not only had to get out of her home but she had to temporarily close the restaurant she owns with her husband.

“People didn’t want to come back to Apex. Even Apex people didn’t want to come back to the evacuation zone because nobody was sure what it was all about,” Hatzidakis said.

Hatzidakis signed onto the class action lawsuit and said it's been a long a difficult three year process.

Hatzidakis said for her it was less about the compensation and more about holding EQ accountable.

“I understand totally that hazardous chemicals are going to happen, especially as our technology grows, but the people who sign up to take responsibility for taking care of this need to be held responsible and do the right thing by them,” Hatzidakis said.

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said he was pleased a settlement was reached in the case, and some residents said they hope to finally put the incident behind them.

"It's the right thing to do," resident Greg Chesney said. "I don't think any of us really knew (EQ was) there, and just based on what we heard, that's kind of a dangerous thing to have next door to residential neighborhoods."

Residents and business owners have the choice of accepting the settlement or opting out and pursuing their own lawsuit. Britt has scheduled an Oct. 6 hearing to judge the overall fairness of the settlement.

Attorney fees makes up about $3 million of the settlement total.

EQ previously reimbursed the town of Apex more than $200,000 for its costs in responding to the fire and handling the evacuation.

The company also agreed not to reopen the facility to settle a state fine over environmental violations there.