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Plant's chemicals are still unidentified

Oct 6, 2006 |

Environmental Quality Co. is allowed to handle scores of toxic compounds, but it was not clear whether late-night explosions at the Apex hazardous waste company released dangerous quantities.

Emergency workers observed what looked and smelled like a cloud of chlorine gas over the plant after fires broke out, but state air quality monitors hours later did not detect chlorine or any other health threat.

Apex Mayor Kevin Weatherly said Environmental Quality indicated that fertilizers and pesticides probably were on the property. A company spokesman said paints could have been there, too.

Still, regulators say they do not know yet whether dangerous materials were released into the air or creeks and waterways that flow into the Neuse River.

“We are very concerned about people’s safety and we will report what we find as soon as possible,” said Elizabeth Cannon, chief of the hazardous waste section at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The State Bureau of Investigation has assigned agents to determine whether crimes such as arson or environmental offenses contributed to the explosion. Criminal investigators with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are also expected. The agency routinely looks into explosions at regulated plants.

Environmental Quality Co. was in compliance with state rules governing the handling and storing of toxic chemicals. State inspectors visit such facilities at least four times a month and last inspected the Apex site Sept. 28 and 29, Cannon said.

Since taking ownership of the Apex facility in January 2003, Environmental Quality has accumulated routine “deficiencies.” Inspectors have found hazardous materials improperly stored together, for instance, and the contents of containers not clearly labeled, according to records.

In July 2003, DENR fined the outfit $32,000 after flammable waste was pumped into a tanker truck that was not cleaned of the acidic waste residue collected previously.

At the Apex facility, Environmental Quality collected many types of hazardous waste and recycled some from surrounding states. Much of its business involved collecting liquid that could be processed into fuels used by cement kilns, Cannon said. It also handled regulated materials such as research laboratory waste and flammable materials, which were shipped out of state.

Some materials that came through can ignite or are corrosive. They include heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium and mercury. The company also accepts hazardous organic materials, according to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

As the fire burned, state regulators analyzed air repeatedly Friday and detected no worrisome chemical concentrations. They did detect a compound called BTEX, or a benzene toluene ethylene xylene complex, which is associated with toxic chemicals. They detected the chemical only concentrations measured in parts per billion, said Tom Mather, a DENR spokesman.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which studies industrial accidents to prevent them from reoccuring, also deployed a team, in part because a Michigan plant owned by Environmental Quality Co. of exploded last summer, apparently after volatile liquids were improperly mixed. The safety board investigators arrived Friday night, and were to begin work this morning.

Michigan regulators couldn’t detect whether mismanagement caused the problem and have not decided whether to let the company resume operations, said Robert McCann, spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Another concern in Apex is whether heavy rains washed chemicals into waterways. Surface water flowing from the property would travel into Middle Creek, which connects to Sunset Lake, and then to Swift Creek, which empties into the Neuse River near Smithfield.

Smithfield’s public water supply probably would not be affected because the creek empties into the Neuse below where Smithfield draws water, said Susan Massengale, a DENR spokeswoman. State officials contacted the city of Goldsboro to encourage it to monitor downstream water.

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