Issues Surface During Probe of North Carolina Chemical Plant Fire

Federal investigators said Monday that a chemical fire in Apex likely began in a part of a hazardous waste operation where chemicals that promote combustion are stored.
Officials with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have completed their first round of what could be a yearlong investigation into the Oct. 5 fire at Environmental Quality Industrial Services, which resulted in the evacuation of about 17,000 Apex residents.
CSB officials said Monday that the fire likely began in the oxidizer section of the facility -- an area where chemicals that promote combustion are stored. Flammable chemicals are supposed to be stored away from the oxidizer section, and CSB investigators are looking to see if the two classes of chemicals were improperly stored together at the EQ site.
The federal agency also said the fire raises a number of questions including whether better fire detection, protection and firewalls could improve safety.
Robert Hall, chief CSB investigator, said that a chemical cloud was observed rising from the oxidizer storage area before the fire was evident. When the first firefighters arrived, they found a small fire approximately the size of two pallets. Within minutes, the fire spread to an adjacent bay containing highly flammable solvents. The fire grew out of control and was eventually allowed to burn itself out.
"The emergency response to the fire was appropriate, efficient and precautionary," Hall said, stating that attempting to fight such a fire with water could have led to environmental contamination.
An EQ spokesman said employees that handled the materials were appropriately trained. Company officials are cooperating with the CSB investigation and support any measures that promote safety, the spokesman said.
A lack of physical evidence could prevent investigators from ever determining the exact cause of the fire, officials said, but witness accounts are consistent with an incompatible chemical mixture that resulted in an uncontrolled chemical reaction. Officials said that type of reaction could have produced flammable vapors, which could have ignited the fire.
The CSB investigation is expected to take six to 12 months to complete, and officials said their results will likely lead to new safety recommendations in hazardous waste storage facilities nationwide.
"We can't be safe enough when it comes to these types of facilities, particularly in urban areas where a majority of these materials are used. I think stricter safety standards are imperative," Apex Town Manager Bruce Radford said.
CSB officials also said emergency responders must have access to accurate information about the contents of hazardous waste facilities.
While the federal report will take months to finish, officials said some of the issues could be addressed by the state by December through a new Hazardous Materials Task Force appointed by Gov. Mike Easley.
"We felt very strongly in our conversations that there needs to be better recording about what's stored in these facilities," task force member David Thompson said.
Reporter: Melissa BuscherPhotographer: Ed WilsonWeb Editor: Matthew Burns and Kamal Wallace

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