Oct 16, 2006
A fire at a hazardous waste processing facility on October 5 in Apex, North Carolina shot flames 200 feet into the air and caused several explosions. The fire ignited four petroleum tanks at another company nearby and created a yellow haze that smelled of chlorine. The city evacuated 17,000 people and 18 people received treatment at emergency rooms for respiratory problems.
The company where the fire occurred, EQ Industrial Services, collected hazardous waste for disposal. The chemicals stored there included paints, thinners, oils, cleansers, detergents and antifreeze. The company claims it doesn’t even know which chemicals burned. They said the site was a short-term routing facility with hazardous materials constantly coming and going. They claim they register what chemicals are stored there once a year, and the company’s log probably burned up in the fire.
A great excuse. This company handles all this horribly toxic brew, and they don’t even keep track of what comes and goes?
But the government’s environmental agencies let them get away with it. Environmental officials cited this company in March for six violations at the Apex plant including failure 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.” Yet the government allowed them to remain open.
Then after the fire, environmental officials were quick to give assurances that it was safe for residents to go back to their homes – even though they didn’t even know the cause of the fire or what specific chemicals burned. The EPA official coordinating the cleanup efforts, James Webster, played down the danger by saying the fire department’s decision to let the fire burn means the most toxic chemicals probably dissipated.
Of course, a doctor from a company that makes detectors of toxic gases says that burning large quantities of the kinds of chemicals the plant handled can cause long-term damage to the liver and kidneys. And officials haven’t yet tested swipe samples from area houses or schools or analyzed the soil for toxic sediments.
This wasn’t the first time something like this happened. In fact, the Apex facility is owned by the same company, EQ-The Environmental Quality Company, that owns another chemical processing plant in Romulus, Michigan. There was a fire at that plant a year ago, in August 2005. And that plant had been warned by state inspectors just months prior that it was not storing materials in the proper areas and that it was not doing proper paperwork to verify what it was receiving. The government assured residents in Romulus that everything was safe there too.
None of this should come as a surprise. The big companies need processing companies like this to dispose of their toxic chemicals and do it cheaply. And the interests the environmental agencies protect first are those of the big bosses.