ELIZABETH DUNBAR, ASSOCIATED PRESS, OCTOBER 9, 2006
APEX, N.C. – An official for EQ Industrial Services on Monday said the company committed no wrongdoing in a chemical fire last week that caused the town of Apex to ask thousands of people to evacuate.
Scott Maris, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Michigan-based company, said investigators will find that the hazardous materials storage facility followed all laws and regulations.
“Once the investigation is done, there won’t be any evidence of wrongdoing,” Maris said.
Officials still don’t know what caused the fire, which started Thursday night with a series of explosions that created a potentially toxic plume of smoke above Apex, a town about 15 miles west of Raleigh. Town officials asked as many as 17,000 people to leave their homes because of the threat from the burning chemicals.
Residents were allowed to return home Saturday morning after a series of air tests showed there were no health risks.
Initial reports said deadly chlorine gas may have been emitted, but Maris said no chlorine gas was ever stored at the facility and no chlorine was detected in the air during and after the fire. He didn’t know whether the chlorine in pool chemicals and cleaning supplies could produce chlorine gas when burned.
“You’d have to ask a chemist that,” he said during a news conference in Apex in front of the blocked-off street where EQ is located.
The company has provided town officials and investigators a list of materials that were at the site. They include paints, thinners, cleaning supplies, oils, detergents and antifreeze. Materials were stored temporarily in buckets and barrels at the Apex facility before they were taken to treatment and disposal plants.
EQ doesn’t know what would have caused the greenish yellow cloud over the fire that some said looked like chlorine gas, Maris said.
“We’ll let the health experts make that determination,” he said.
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.” But the state said the company had passed a required inspection as recently as Sept. 28-29.
Bruce Radford, Apex’s town manager, said he and other officials made the right decision in urging people to evacuate. Several people who first responded to the blaze had to be treated at the hospital for inhaling fumes, and officials couldn’t take any risks with residents, Radford said.
“If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of caution,” he said.
EQ is paying for the cleanup and will reimburse residents for some evacuation costs.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and other federal, state and local agencies are helping investigate the incident.