EQ facility had been warned

Facility had history of violations

Staff WriterOctober 6, 2006 

The Apex facility where a fire and explosions begat clouds of chlorine gas Thursday night was warned of a potential catastrophe more than six months ago by state officials.

On March 31, the industrial waste management company Environmental Quality was fined $32,000 for six violations, including one that state officials said created "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."

EQ also was cited for storing a container of hazardous waste beside an incompatible one and for not clearly marking containers to identify their contents, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Web site.

EQ and its predecessor at 1005 Investment Blvd., have a history of environmental violations and fines levied by the state environmental department. The civil penalties were assessed by the department's Hazardous Waste Section.

EQ is based in the Detroit suburb of Wayne, Mich., and employs 700 people nationwide. The Apex site stores and manages drums of hazardous waste.

In 2001, EnviroChem Environmental Services, a business at the same address, was fined $131,000 for violations similar to those cited this year. The eight violations included failures to mark containers as "Hazardous Waste," to maintain adequate access to a fire extinguisher, and to properly process mercury, which caused the release of mercury vapors that could have endangered the facility's workers.

The release of chlorine gas led to the nighttime evacuations of more than half of the town's 32,000 citizens.

Robert Doyle, an EQ spokesman based in Detroit, said there are 30 employees who work at the Apex plant and all were out of the facility by 7 p.m. Thursday. The fire started about 10 p.m. The site's general manager, whom Doyle declined to identify early Friday morning, returned after the fire broke out.

The Apex site stores paints, solvents and nonhazardous waste material, Doyle said, adding that with such a variety, he could only make assumptions about what was burning. He would not comment on what might be on fire or whether the fire or fumes were dangerous.

"There's several hundred drums of waste within the buildings on the site," Doyle said. "I can only assume that the burning is coming from that waste that is maintained on site. ... It's really difficult to tell what type of chemicals are part of the fire."

Emergency response to hazardous spills is listed among the company's various services.

(Staff researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Cindy George can be reached at 829-4656 or cgeorge@newsobserver.com.

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