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Plume brings more Apex evacuations

Chemical reaction comes 2 weeks after huge fire at Apex plant

Oct 19, 2006 | AP Emergency crews evacuated businesses near an industrial waste plant Wednesday after a chemical reaction sent a toxic plume into the air, two weeks after a raging inferno at the same site forced thousands of people from their homes.

State environmental officials indefinitely suspended cleanup at the plant's ruins in Apex, a Raleigh suburb.

Firefighters managed to extinguish the smoldering chemical mix two hours after it began spouting smoke from a 55-gallon barrel. The drum contained a sodium metal solution that can ignite when exposed to water or air, said Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly. Rain had drenched the area Tuesday.

The irritating fumes produced by the reaction reportedly caused burning eyes, Weatherly said.

"It's very frustrating to see something like this happen again," he said. "There's now additional apprehension among our folks, which is unfortunate."

Emergency responders evacuated a few dozen people from four businesses close to the plant.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources halted work at the site and asked EQ Industrial Services Co., which owned the plant, to provide a written report detailing the cause of Wednesday's reaction and steps being taken to ensure public safety.

The company's cleanup plan was approved Tuesday.

"We're trying to make sure that they are following the steps to the letter of their plan," said Diana Kees, a department spokeswoman.

The EQ chemical plant erupted into flames Oct. 5, lighting up the sky with explosions and blanketing parts of the town in a yellow-green haze. Town officials had urged as many as 17,000 people to evacuate, citing potentially toxic fumes that had made a few dozen people seek medical attention.

Residents were allowed to return home after firefighters extinguished the blaze two days later.

More than 200 residents packed Apex Town Hall on Tuesday looking for answers about the blaze.

Though EQ officials have said tests found no harmful levels of toxins in the atmosphere, residents wanted to know more about their vegetable gardens, their children's health and the quality of their air. Some also asked whether the company will rebuild at the site a prospect town officials said they'll do everything in their power to prevent.

"We cannot tolerate the continued operation of a hazardous-waste storage facility in Apex," Weatherly said. "Let me just say our concern and the point we will not forget is that EQ has exposed our citizens to an unprecedented level of danger."

The Michigan-based company has said a decision about rebuilding in Apex won't be made until cleanup is complete.

State regulators say more tests will be conducted on the ground and water and they expect to release a report on air quality later this week.

Gov. Mike Easley has also announced that a task force will examine regulations for hazardous waste storage centers and recommend changes to tighten those rules.

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