Apex in the dark: Communities hosting toxic waste sites are ill-served when laws leave first responders guessing about chemicals held there

A fireball goes up over the Apex site, photographed by the Observer’s Chris Seward
First reports said the ominous blaze at the EQ Industrial Services waste facility in Apex was generating clouds of deadly chlorine. Emergency workers decided to evacuate 17,000 residents (28, including some first responders, went to emergency rooms with respiratory problems). Now doubt is being raised whether chlorine was among the chemicals that burned, but EQ says it will need more time to determine just which substances were present. Mayor Keith Weatherly is angry at the delay, and rightly so.
EQ, whose Apex facility sits in the middle of residential neighborhoods, receives and reships a variety of chemical hazardous waste — paints, solvents, swimming pool chemicals (including chlorine), expired drugs and more. Federal and state laws require that it keep a detailed inventory of the materials at its facility.
The company was able to come up with a lengthy coded list, but officials have found that data to be not as informative as they would have liked. Maybe more detailed files went up in Thursday’s fire. Certainly, though, the extent of EQ’s compliance with inventory-tracking rules needs a close look.
Beyond that, the fire makes it obvious that the public — including people who live near such facilities and emergency responders — deserves more information about the chemicals kept behind the chain-link fences. It seems alarming now that state and local agencies haven’t been regularly updated on substances stored at the site. And it’s another reason why the firefighters, police officers, medical and other emergency workers who rushed in to take Apex residents out of harm’s way are owed a debt of thanks. They remind us again of the steely courage that emergency workers regularly muster.
Had EQ’s information been on file where authorities could access it, fewer residents might have had their lives disrupted last weekend. The risk to emergency workers could have been more accurately gauged. A list might have helped doctors more effectively treat people who inhaled the smoke. Residents of Apex and communities downwind of EQ still didn’t know as of yesterday how much danger residue from the fire’s smoke might pose.
The fact is, Apex might know more if a federal law enacted after the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, hadn’t included a big loophole for operations such as EQ’s. The law requires most facilities that handle hazardous substances to report their inventories to state and local agencies. Companies such as EQ (it is one of 11 in North Carolina) that transfer substances must keep a list of what’s on the property and show it to inspectors. But they don’t have to report it to local and state authorities.
Apex’s brush with disaster should prompt Congress to require such companies to report daily. It would take just a few keystrokes on a computer to do so. A reasonable standard for what information to include would be: What do first responders need to know, to protect communities and themselves? If Congress doesn’t, North Carolina lawmakers should make this kind of reporting a priority.
At the same time, and in view of terrorism risks, Congress could cut the permissible amount of hazardous chemicals that circulate in the United States. A recent bill — weakened before it was approved — would have required industries to switch to safer alternatives to various toxic chemicals. There no doubt are instances when that wouldn’t be feasible, but Congress would do well to take a hard line.
For updates on the environmental impact of the fire, go to Raleigh Eco News, an online environmental report maintained by Independent Weekly contributor Sue Sturgis. Look for the item entitled “Chemicals permitted at burned Apex plant” for a list of the chemicals Environmental Quality was allowed to have at the site.

Plant’s chemicals are still unidentified
By Catherine Clabby, Staff Writer
Environmental Quality Co. is allowed to handle scores of toxic compounds, but it was not clear whether late-night explosions at the Apex hazardous waste company released dangerous quantities.
Emergency workers observed what looked and smelled like a cloud of chlorine gas over the plant after fires broke out, but state air quality monitors hours later did not detect chlorine or any other health threat.
Apex Mayor Kevin Weatherly said Environmental Quality indicated that fertilizers and pesticides probably were on the property. A company spokesman said paints could have been there, too.
Still, regulators say they do not know yet whether dangerous materials were released into the air or creeks and waterways that flow into the Neuse River.
“We are very concerned about people’s safety and we will report what we find as soon as possible,” said Elizabeth Cannon, chief of the hazardous waste section at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The State Bureau of Investigation has assigned agents to determine whether crimes such as arson or environmental offenses contributed to the explosion. Criminal investigators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are also expected. The agency routinely looks into explosions at regulated plants.
Environmental Quality Co. was in compliance with state rules governing the handling and storing of toxic chemicals. State inspectors visit such facilities at least four times a month and last inspected the Apex site Sept. 28 and 29, Cannon said.
Since taking ownership of the Apex facility in January 2003, Environmental Quality has accumulated routine “deficiencies.” Inspectors have found hazardous materials improperly stored together, for instance, and the contents of containers not clearly labeled, according to records.
In July 2003, DENR fined the outfit $32,000 after flammable waste was pumped into a tanker truck that was not cleaned of the acidic waste residue collected previously.
At the Apex facility, Environmental Quality collected many types of hazardous waste and recycled some from surrounding states. Much of its business involved collecting liquid that could be processed into fuels used by cement kilns, Cannon said. It also handled regulated materials such as research laboratory waste and flammable materials, which were shipped out of state.
Some materials that came through can ignite or are corrosive. They include heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium and mercury. The company also accepts hazardous organic materials, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
As the fire burned, state regulators analyzed air repeatedly Friday and detected no worrisome chemical concentrations. They did detect a compound called BTEX, or a benzene toluene ethylene xylene complex, which is associated with toxic chemicals. They detected the chemical only concentrations measured in parts per billion, said Tom Mather, a DENR spokesman.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which studies industrial accidents to prevent them from reoccuring, also deployed a team, in part because a Michigan plant owned by Environmental Quality Co. of exploded last summer, apparently after volatile liquids were improperly mixed. The safety board investigators arrived Friday night, and were to begin work this morning.
Michigan regulators couldn’t detect whether mismanagement caused the problem and have not decided whether to let the company resume operations, said Robert McCann, spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Another concern in Apex is whether heavy rains washed chemicals into waterways. Surface water flowing from the property would travel into Middle Creek, which connects to Sunset Lake, and then to Swift Creek, which empties into the Neuse River near Smithfield.
Smithfield’s public water supply probably would not be affected because the creek empties into the Neuse below where Smithfield draws water, said Susan Massengale, a DENR spokeswoman. State officials contacted the city of Goldsboro to encourage it to monitor downstream water.

Staff writers Jean Fisher, Craig Jarvis and Jonathan B. Cox contributed to this report.

Catherine Clabby can be reached at 956-2414 or cclabby@newsobserver.com.
Scenes from Apex
Benjamin Niolet and Toby Coleman, Staff Writers
Charles Hobby stood waiting for his 87-year-old mother on the corner of Waterford Green Drive and Center Street, about two miles east of downtown.
He said he had been watching the N.C. State football game and turned on the news and discovered a commotion mere miles from his home. He thought of his mother, Maude Hobby, who lived still closer to the fire, and he called to check on her.
He told her to turn off the air conditioning and gather her necessities. He tried to reach her home but was turned back. He said rescue workers agreed to fetch her and he waited.
“She’s just kind of panicking,” he said.
After about 20 minutes, an SUV drove up containing Maude Hobby.
As Hobby stood, waiting Sean Hare, 25, walked to the intersection and asked a state trooper blocking the road if someone could get his 5-month-old boxer puppy, Rebel, from his townhome yards from the burning plant.
The trooper said no one could go.
At 2 a.m., Chloe Hill, 23, sat waiting at Western Wake Medical Center with about 20 other victims who were coughing, breathing heavily and drinking as much water as they could.
Hill, from Nashville, Tenn. was visiting her parents in Apex when, “I started getting a knot in my throat.”
Soon, it moved to her chest. “I see a whole bunch of people from downtown Apex with similar symptoms,” she said.

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