APEX, N.C. (WNCN) – Ten years ago Wednesday, an explosion and fire at a hazardous waste transfer facility in Apex forced more than 17,000 people from their homes.
FEMA later said it was one of the largest evacuations in the history of the U.S.
That fire forever changed how facilities like that operated — bringing about both new federal and state rules.
On Oct. 5, 2006, Apex Fire received a 911 call from a near-by resident reporting a chlorine smell and cloud coming from the Environmental Quality facility.
Apex firefighters watched a small fire grown into a major inferno as they arrived on scene.
“Suddenly someone said, ‘It just broke thru the roof,'” recalled former Town Manager Bruce Radford.
The Environmental Quality company’s building consisted of a metal-roofed structure with two open sides divided into bays.
The facility was divided into bays where everything from pesticides to lab waste were stored for later shipment to treatment or disposal facilities.
But nobody knew exactly what was in the building.
As the fire burned, Radford recalled the frustration of not knowing what was burning.
“We asked them for a manifest of what was in the building and they said they didn’t have it,” he said.
The fire was roaring within minutes, consuming everything in the facility and spreading a toxic cloud all over the town which forced even first responders to repeatedly move further and further way.
Radford said they saw conditions deteriorate again at their second staging area.
“While we were sitting there for 10-15 minutes, large 55-gallon drums of some material were flying into the air. Two-hundred feet high and exploding. So, the chief says, ‘We gotta move again.'”
As the cloud spread, town hall, the police station and the downtown business district were no longer safe places for shelter.
“I went to the town hall where we were asking people to come because they had to leave their homes. But then that was in the evacuation area,” recalled former Mayor Keith Weatherly.
Now, a nursery sits on the site which EQ once occupied.
After the accident occurred, the federal Chemical Safety Board investigated and wrote a case study on what it said were safety issues involved.
Apex resident Phillip Sloop who was among those evacuated for two days because of the fire.
“I had no idea. So did my neighbors when I talked to them later. We had no idea what was there,” Sloop said.
And neither did first responders or EQ management.
At the time, hazardous waste companies were not required to provide written information to first responders on the materials they handled.
“We were 14-15 hours into the deal before we knew exactly what the constituency of the chemicals were,” said Radford. “Once we did get a list, it wasn’t a list of words. It was a list of numbers.”
That forced firefighters to spend hours on a computer looking up the names of the chemicals associated with those numbers so they could figure out what they were dealing with.
Jean Sciaccia eventually found out what some of those chemicals were.
She ran a thriving gymnastics program in the building that was right next door to the EQ facility.
“We were 14-15 hours into the deal before we knew exactly what the constituency of the chemicals were.”
She hired a testing lab to help her determine how to clean up her gym.
“What they found was heavy metals had come in through the air conditioning unit and had spread all over the inside of the gym. There was many different heavy metals that had settled — dangerous metals like mercury and nickel,” she said.
It took four weeks to clean it up and she said her business never recovered.
“Honestly I feel like because I closed for four weeks and lost that business. It really did my business in,” she said.
A federal investigation by the CSB found oxygen generators from aircraft were stacked underneath drums of chlorine-based pool chemicals. When the pool chemicals ignited, the heat caused the generators to release oxygen which accelerated the fire.
The CSB recommended sprinklers and fire walls for similar facilities to retard the spread of flames in similar fires.
“That’s what worried and frustrated us, that they would allow those chemicals to be stored in such a fashion in a densely populated area with neighborhoods all around it,” said Sloop.
After the fire, the state changed the rules.
Waste chemical facilities now cannot be located within a certain distance of a residential area.
And a list of those chemicals that are housed in such facilities required to be kept off premise and not to be kept in the federal ID numbers.
“It’s to be kept in plain ‘ole English,” said Radford.
Although the information about those facilities is now public record, most like Sloop are unaware of that or how to access it.
“I wouldn’t know to access it unless I knew that there was a facility near-by that I needed to check into,” Sloop told CBS North Carolina.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said there are nine facilities similar to EQ currently operating in the state.
But said there are thousands more places from hospitals to local auto body shops that generate hazardous waste.
“The ones most closely watched are those like Environmental Quality where they are in charge of treating, storing and disposing of hazardous waste,” said DEQ spokesman Jamie Kritzer.
And each one of those facilities is now listed on an interactive map.
“If anything should happen at any one of these facilities, the people who need to know most about what was stored where in a facility—have real time information to operate on,” explained Kritzer.
DEQ has also established a database of hazardous waste facilities.
Insert the name of the company you want check and it’ll bring up everything information about permits, safety plans, etc.