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State had warned hazardous waste company about potential disaster

Oct 6, 2006 | AP State environmental officials warned of a potential disaster six month ago at the hazardous waste materials facility in Apex that exploded into flames and continued to burn Friday.

EQ Industrial Services Inc. failed to "maintain and operate the facility to minimize the possibility of a sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste which could threaten human health or the environment," the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources found when issuing a $32,000 fine in March for six violations.

The fine, detailed on the department's Web site, was almost twice as much as any other assessed against a hazardous waste facility this year in North Carolina.

But a spokesman for EQ Industrial Services, which has more than 50 years of experience in the business, cautioned the violations may not have had anything to do with the fire that started late Thursday.

"That could range from anything like a spill of materials that could get in a storm drain," said Robert Doyle from the company's headquarters in Detroit. "It could be completely unrelated to something like a fire or explosion."

EQ Industrial Services, which specializes in the transportation, cleaning, remediation, and recycling of a hazardous and industrial waste, housed a variety of volatile chemicals, including chlorine, at its facility in Apex.

"Because of all the different types, we can't be sure what caused the fire," Doyle said. "I can't say the best way to put it out."

Firefighters were waiting for daybreak to inspect the fire. They were unable to get within 100 yards of the blaze overnight and feared using water or foam to fight it could add more fuel to the volatile mix of chemicals. Doyle said the company was mobilizing its own emergency response team to help with the clean up.

The fire and chemical release forced authorities to ask at least 17,000 people to evacuate their homes. Officials declared a local state of emergency, and pleaded with those who remained at home to stay inside, close all windows and turn off their air conditioning.

In the March citation, the state criticized the company for having insufficient plans to deal with a catastrophe, and also questioned its materials storage practices and its record-keeping.

"Since they were fined, they have been working on corrective action with the division of waste management," Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Diana Kees said early Friday.

Bruce Radford, the town manager in Apex, said he was unaware the state had recently fined the company.

"It certainly would have been prudent for us to be made aware of their noncompliance," he said.

Added Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly: "We've had no issue with them in the past."

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