Few took notice of Apex warehouse: Neighbors, town unaware of risks until fire started

Toby Coleman, McClatchy Newspapers, October 15, 2006
APEX, N.C. – Few noticed the EQ Industrial Services Co. warehouse on Investment Boulevard until it turned into a volcano.
Parents did not fret about sending children to gymnastics lessons next door to the inconspicuous building. A developer put up townhouses on a nearby parcel.
Most in the neighborhoods around the warehouse learned of its existence on Oct. 5 when the warehouse was on fire and the noxious plume of smoke forced firefighters to retreat and let it burn.
“I had no idea,” said Kathy Digeso, who has lived for a year in a townhouse a few hundred feet from the warehouse. “It’s not something you expect in Apex.”
Apex officials say the EQ warehouse was so quiet and unobtrusive, they largely forgot about the explosive potential of the materials inside.
“They became obscure,” said Town Council member Bill Sutton, who served as town manager from 1993 to 2001. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Some people in Apex had fretted about the warehouse in the early ’90s, when its then-owners were taking steps to make it a temporary storage facility for hazardous waste. But after that, worry died down and town leaders let builders put up more than 600 homes within a mile of the warehouse.
The explosive revelation that a chemical warehouse was in suburban Apex exposed a crack in the regulations created to protect people from industrial accidents. Despite all the permits and the inspections that hazardous-waste handlers must obtain, little is done to stop people from moving in around them.
Children’s gyms, a church and dozens of homes surround Environmental Quality’s Apex warehouse.
“People forget that these places are dangerous because there’s not a list of the stored chemicals hanging on the front gate,” said Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, an environmental group.
“It just looks like a warehouse,” she said. “There is really very little understanding just how dangerous these facilities are.”
In Apex, officials did not raise red flags as homes and businesses rose around the EQ warehouse. Last year, state regulators looked at zoning maps of the increasingly suburban neighborhood and decided to let EQ store hazardous waste there until at least 2015.
“It was somewhat forgotten,” said Sutton. “But it’s not forgotten now.”
When workers began stocking hazardous waste there in 1987, Investment Boulevard was a dead-end street at the edge of town close to an asphalt plant.
That made it easier for EnviroChem Environmental Services, the warehouse’s original owner, to win the state’s permission to operate a way station for barrels of pesticides, cylinders of trashed solvents and pails of old medicine.
David Rowland, the town planning director, said that proximity to the chemical way station was never an issue when the town considered proposals to develop nearby land.
“You really didn’t know they were there,” Rowland said.
When EQ obtained the plant from EnviroChem three years ago, the Michigan-based company continued the tradition of keeping its head down. It stayed out of the local Chamber of Commerce and never approached the town’s fire department about running a chemical emergency drill – something it was not required to do.
The company’s hushed style paid dividends last year during its effort to renew its state hazardous waste storage permit. At the public hearing, nobody showed up to complain or fret about EQ’s presence in Apex. Town officials also stayed silent, according to records.
That anonymity vanished into thick, noxious smoke Oct. 5.

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