The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Enviros Say Chemical-Plant Fire May Leave Residents Vulnerable

by Shreema Mehta

Oct. 12, 2006 – Residents have returned to their homes after evacuating because of a chemical-plant fire in Apex, North Carolina last Thursday, but Greenpeace warns that more environmental testing is needed. And now a local group is calling for a reduced use of toxic chemicals in general.

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According to news reports, the fire started last Thursday night and continued burning on Friday. The town declared a state of emergency and recommended residents evacuate their homes after the fire caused the release of toxic fumes, though authorities said they do not know which toxic chemicals were in the fumes. According to a company statement, an ongoing investigation has not yet revealed the cause of the fire.

The facility is owned by the Environmental Quality Company, a hazardous-waste disposal and treatment company.

In letters to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state Department of Natural Resources, the environmental activist group Greenpeace recommended that state officials urge residents to ventilate enclosed spaces, such as basements, in case chlorine gas entered homes.

It also recommended the state invite residents and officials to have their homes, schools and other facilities tested for toxic chemicals, and that scientists test sediments and plant and animal life in addition to water sampling.

Greenpeace also criticized officials from the state and the Environmental Quality Company for failing to provide residents with information about what hazardous wastes were in the facility when the fire broke out, and whether the conflagration produced toxic fumes.

A notice on the Wake County website said that "chemical analyses of the surrounding area Friday detected no toxins at levels sufficient to cause long-term health problems," adding that the plant stores paints, detergents and other chemicals.

Residents started returning to their homes after Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly said, "We've been given every assurance that it's safe for our citizens to go back home."

Testing conducted the day of the fire found no immediate dangers in the water, according to the Department of Natural Resources’ most recent published statement.But regulators also noted in a report that they were concerned runoff from the facility could travel through waterways to Goldsboro, North Carolina. On Saturday, the EPA detected "trace-levels" of chlorinated ethanes and benzenes, which can be toxic.

Officials continued testing over the weekend but have not released updates.

According to an EPA report, Environmental Quality was fined $32,000 for failing to "maintain and operate the facility to minimize the possibility of a sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste constituents to air, soil or surface water which could threaten human health or the environment."

The advocacy group Environment North Carolina said reducing the use of toxic chemicals is the only way to prevent similar accidents in the future.

"The chemical fire in Apex underscores the importance of protecting communities from releases of highly toxic chemicals," the group said in a statement. "The best way to limit toxic chemical releases is to reduce toxic chemical use."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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