Officials: At least 12 hours until chemical fire extinguished

STEVE HARTSOE, ASSOCIATED PRESS, OCTOBER 6, 2006
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Apex, North Carolina website
As a timely rain storm helped scrub the air, firefighters cautiously tackled a chemical fire Friday at a hazardous waste plant where a thundering series of explosions filled the overnight sky with fireballs and a spooky yellow haze.
Mayor Keith Weatherly said just after 6 p.m. that it would be at least 12 hours before the fire is out, and he reiterated that none of Apex’s evacuated residents will be allowed to return home until the blaze is extinguished.
“We want to err on the side of safety and not send anybody home,” said Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway.
Haraway said firefighters from his department and area hazmat teams were working closely with an outside contractor hired to help fight the complex blaze. Three significant fires remained burning Friday night, all under the collapsed building that housed EQ Industrial Services.
The fire began around 10 p.m. Thursday, and officials were soon on local television begging people to stay away from the city’s downtown. They initially urged about half the Apex’s 32,000 residents to evacuate, then expanded the request as a dangerous plume of smoke and chemicals started to move.
Weatherly said officials couldn’t be sure how many people actually left their homes, but several hundred people took shelter at area schools. Others likely stayed with friends or at nearby hotels. Schools were close Friday, police closed roads to keep people out of Apex’s central business district, and several Friday night high school football games were canceled.
“The bad part was that we didn’t really know what was going on,” said Beth Roach, whose family left their home about two miles from the plant around 3 a.m. “Ultimately, that’s what made our decision to leave. It was the unknown.”
No serious injuries were reported. Wake County officials said 44 people went to emergency rooms, most complaining of respiratory problems. All were released by Friday afternoon.
The EQ Industrial Services plant handles a wide array of industrial waste, from paints to solvents, and houses chemicals such as chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, sulfur and fertilizer. The volatile mix led firefighters to take extra care, and they waited for daylight to determine how to attack the blaze.
Haraway said an initial assessment found the building had collapsed onto itself, and firefighters used video cameras to further investigate the fire before deciding to try and use a retardant to attack the blaze.
Weatherly and others said Friday the city got a boost from a steady rain that started just before 7 a.m. and helped “scrub” the air. Initial air quality samples offered a “very optimistic outlook” and there was no threat to the city’s drinking water, he said.
Officials with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said Friday afternoon their tests “had not detected anything out of the ordinary in the air.” The department was also testing bodies of water in the area.
“Rain has a tendency to dissolve pollutants in the atmosphere and bring them to the surface of the earth quickly,” said Viney Aneja, a professor of air quality at North Carolina State University. “Rainfall has been a godsend.”
There is no way to know how long it will take investigators or company officials to figure out what caused the fire, said spokesman Robert Doyle from the company’s headquarters near Detroit.
“We’ll just be getting a better understanding of what all is there and get an idea of how to begin the clean up and recovery process,” Doyle said.
Last August, a similar fire at company’s facility in Romulus, Mich., drove about 2,000 people from their homes and sent at least 32 people for treatment at hospitals. An investigation is still ongoing, said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“Due to the extensive damage caused by the fire, its been very difficult to ultimately determine what the cause of it was, and whether any violations actually occured,” McCann said in an e-mail. He added no fines or violations have been issued so far.
In March, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources fined EQ $32,000 for six violations at the plant, including failing to “maintain and operate the facility to minimize the possibility of a sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste … which could threaten human health or the environment.”
Doyle cautioned the violations might not have had anything to do with the fire, and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the company had passed a required inspection as recently as Sept. 28-29.
EQ Industrial Services established a toll-free number for people who live near the plant to call with questions: 888-675-1680.
Associated Press Writer Mike Baker in Apex and Rhonda Shafner at the AP’s News and Information Research Center contributed to this report.

ON THE NET:
Apex, North Carolina: http://www.apexnc.org
EQ Industrial Services Inc: http://www.eqonline.com

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