Environmental Impact Probed after North Carolina Chemical Fire

Mayor Keith Weatherly blasted an official of a hazardous-waste handler Tuesday, saying he downplayed the presence of toxic chemicals in a fire at the site last week.

Four days after a the Thursday night fire, which prompted an evacuation that involved about 17,000 local residents, Environmental Quality Industrial Services turned over a 19-page list of chemicals stored at the site to state environmental regulators and Apex officials late Monday.

Scott Maris, EQ's vice president for regulatory affairs, said Monday that the site was storing only paints, oils and detergents.

However, Maris later provided more information, saying the waste was from companies such as a speed boat manufacturer, a pharmaceutical plant, a high school chemistry lab, and a wastewater treatment plant. He also said most of the serious chemicals were in small amounts or heavily diluted. However, with about 1,700 containers, total amounts remain unclear.

Weatherly said Tuesday that statement was a bit misleading, and he announced that the town had hired its own environmental consultant to to help determine the damage done to the community.

"Reports indicated only benign substances (were on site)," he said. "Upon review, frankly, there were some substances stored there that should give real concern to any prudent person living in the Apex vicinity."

Weatherly listed cynanide, mercury, benzene, arsenic and lead among the toxic chemicals inside the facility at the time of the fire.

Maris defended his characterization of the chemicals, saying he "tried to provide general information in a way people could understand." He said the chemicals Weatherly is concerned about were present in small quantities in products like thermometers, laboratory supplies and diluted manufacturing sludge.

Toxicologist Paul Nony said Apex residents faced little or no threat from the chemicals in the fire.

Nony works for the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, a Little Rock, Ark., firm brought in by EQ to monitor air quality. The firm has taken about 221,000 air samples at 11 monitors around Apex since Friday morning and has found no abnormal levels of chemicals, he said.

"We don't think there was any impact on the community," Nony said.

Authorities still are unsure what sparked the EQ fire.

But Apex officials are now heated over the company's slow response in compiling the list of chemicals on the site. They said the uncertainty made it difficult for firefighters to tackle the fire because they didn't know what hazardous materials they might be facing.

"I think they've been helpful, but I would tell you we're disappointed in how long it took to get this list," Town Manager Bruce Radford said.

Maris said three EQ employees have been working full time in recent days to compile the list, noting about 1,700 containers were in the building at the time of the fire.

Weatherly said he also was upset that the list is almost impossible to decipher.

Maris said the list was broken down by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemical codes, which federal regulators require after such incidents.

"It's difficult to assess the threat from these compounds for a layman," Weatherly said.

North Carolina State University air quality professor Viney Aneja said chemicals indicated in the codes mostly come from the pharmaceutical, textile, and wood processing industries, including:

U166: Used in plastic processing

D003: Spent industrial solvents that are extremely flammable

D005: From the textile industry

D009: Mercury, likely from the hospital industry

U160: A solvent used at hospitals

Company officials said chlorine has not been detected, stating that another chemical on-site must have created a chlorine-like smell during the fire. If there was a chlorine cloud, the surrounding grass would look burned, and there is no evidence of that, said officials.

To ensure the town is getting straight answers on the cleanup after the fire and any lingering environmental damage, he said Apex would spend at least $10,000 to bring in its own consultant. Long Beach Calif.-based Earth Tech, which has an office in Raleigh, would analyze the findings by state and federal environmental regulators, he said.

"We're not through with this until all of our questions and all of the issues are satisfactorily resolved," he said.

EQ officials earlier thought they might have their clean-up proposal ready for state officials on Tuesday. That didn't happen. It could be ready on Wednesday at the earliest.

The lag in EQ's reporting is allowed under state law. Hazardous-waste companies are required only to provide the state with a list of chemicals allowed on site.

"They do not have to give an exact accounting day-to-day of what they have there," said Cathy Akroyd, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

One state legislator said he wants more up-to-date information of what chemicals are stored at such sites and any violations they have encountered.

EQ was fined $32,000 last March by state inspectors, but Apex officials said they never knew of the violations.

"We need to have a real-time inventory for any hazardous waste facility. If grocery stores can know what their inventory is on the grocery shelves in real time, we should certainly be able to have that kind of technology at our hazardous waste facilities," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

"It's a matter of communication, and there's no reason why that communication is not happening," he said.

Reporter: Erin Coleman

Photographer: Robert Meikle

Web Editor: Matthew Burns

Copyright 2006 by WRAL.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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