Apex, N.C. Fire Chief Predicted Heavy Loss From Chemical Fire

October 27, 2006

Apex’s fire chief told a North Carolina state task force this week that he was prepared to lose an entire city block when a chemical fire ignited an industrial waste recycling plant earlier this month because he didn’t know what was inside.

Fire Chief Mark Haraway said he couldn’t determine the volatility or type of chemicals in the Oct. 5 blaze that gutted the EQ Industrial Services plant. EQ officials were unable to immediately provide a list of chemicals stored at the site.

“We didn’t have an exact inventory (of the chemicals in the facility), but we knew what the potential was,” Haraway told the Hazardous Materials Task Force during its first meeting Tuesday.

The panel was formed by Gov. Mike Easley to analyze the response to the fire and ways to prevent future problems at 10 similar facilities around North Carolina. A preliminary report is due Dec. 15.

Haraway and town leaders urged roughly 17,000 people to evacuate Apex as the roaring inferno leveled the plant and covered the Raleigh suburb in a toxic haze. Haraway said officials began evacuations without full knowledge of the fire’s contents.

He told town leaders at the time that the blaze would eventually consume the entire industrial block, adding that his prediction was “optimistic.” The fire never jumped outside the property.

Town manager Bruce Radford expressed frustration that EQ was unable to quickly provide a list of chemicals stored at the site and urged lawmakers to establish stiffer reporting laws.

“It’s of paramount importance that people know what’s on the site – so we can know the repercussions of the burning, the blowing or the washing away,” Radford said.

North Carolina reporting laws currently mirror federal standards, which require only minor disclosure and reporting.

Before the fire, the state inspected EQ on a weekly basis and the company was asked to show a list of contents to investigators. Waste facilities must also submit an annual report to the Environmental Protection Agency and to the state.

EQ wasn’t required to report the chemicals to local officials unless the company held large quantities, according to federal law. In this case, the company only had to report its high volume of diesel fuel.

Because all of EQ’s reporting materials were kept on site, near the blaze, the company was unable to produce a list of materials until five days after the event.

An EQ cleanup crew is clearing the ruins. Numerous environmental tests have determined the area to be free of harmful levels of toxins.

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