A fire last month that consumed a metro Atlanta, Ga., chemical plant burned for at least two hours before checks began for dangerous emissions and four hours before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began more extensive testing, according to a newspaper report published Monday.
Officials said they didn’t detect toxic fumes, but experts noted chemicals are most likely to escape when a fire first begins and the delays could have allowed chemicals to escape, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“We honestly don’t know what chemicals were released,” said Battalion Chief Scott Demkowski, who coordinated the Cobb County fire department’s hazmat team during the May 23 fire at the Amrep warehouse in Marietta.
In addition, the Atlanta newspaper along with The Marietta Daily Journal reported Monday that officials are investigating a fish kill downstream from the warehouse. Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers told the Atlanta newspaper that three to five miles of nearby Sope Creek had been contaminated, probably by a combination of plant chemicals and firefighting foam.
Meanwhile, investigators have yet to determine what caused the May 23 fire and have ruled out arson.
“The Amrep facility was full of extremely toxic chemicals, like heptane, sulfuric acid and toluene, all of which are hazardous to our health and become even more dangerous when they catch on fire,” Colleen Kiernan, director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, said in an email to the Atlanta newspaper. “Right now, we don’t know what happened and whether Marietta residents were exposed to dangerous chemicals.”
The newspaper noted part of the reason air monitoring didn’t start sooner was that firefighters were more worried about nearby heptane and butane pressurized tanks exploding. The fire burned for roughly eight hours with multiple explosions shooting flames hundreds of feet into the air.
“The EPA and the police department tested and confirmed that the fumes from the fire were not toxic, and we have no reason to believe any differently,” said Bob Collins, vice president of Zep Inc., which bought Amrep in 2010.
Authorities said crews immediately went door-to-door notifying businesses within a mile of the warehouse to evacuate and cleared out a nearby soccer arena and sports fields. Authorities decided not to notify residents in a wider radius of the fire after teams with air monitors didn’t detect a threat two hours after the fire began, the newspaper said.
Stephen Ball, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, told the newspaper that if toxic substances at the plant had been released, he would have detected them even four hours later. EPA officials said the response time was typical, but others said the best time to start testing is as soon as possible.
“You want to get the measurements very early,” said Albert Moussa, president of BlazeTech Corp., an engineering consulting firm in Massachusetts. “The sooner the better, obviously.”
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