- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

2:08 p.m.

APEX, N.C. (AP) — As many as 17,000 people were urged to flee homes on the outskirts of Raleigh early today as flames shot from a burning hazardous waste plant and a chlorine cloud rose high over the area.

No employees were believed to have been inside the EQ Industrial Services plant when the fire and a series of explosions started late yesterday. Twenty-five people were taken to emergency rooms with respiratory problems, hospital officials said.

EQ Industrial Services handles a wide array of industrial waste, from paints to solvents, and houses chemicals such as chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, sulfur and fertilizer.

Because of the potential dangers in that mix, firefighters waited for daybreak to determine how to attack the blaze, officials said. Area schools and downtown Apex were closed Friday morning, and police blocked off streets into the area as the plant continued to burn.

“I believe the fire has gone down significantly as a result of having burned up a great deal of combustible material, and also the fact that the rain has helped dampen the fire a great deal,” town manager Bruce Radford said mid-morning.

It wasn’t immediately clear what had started the fire. The flames appeared to have jumped overnight to four petroleum tanks belonging to another company, which may have accounted for some of the explosions, Mayor Keith Weatherly said.

He said state air quality officials told him the steady rain was helping “scrub” the air, and the chemical plume “may very well not be an issue any longer.”

EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said the Wayne, Mich.-based company was mobilizing its emergency response team to help with the clean up. About 25 employees work at the Apex plant, but all had left the building by 7 p.m. yesterday, he said.

“Because of the many different types of waste that we bring in, it’s very difficult to determine the cause of the fire,” he said.

In March, the state Department of Natural Resources had fined EQ $32,000 for six violations at the plant, including failing 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.” But Mr. Doyle cautioned that the violations might not have had anything to do with the fire.

“That could range from anything - like a spill of materials that could get in a storm drain,” he said. “It could be completely unrelated to something like a fire or explosion.”

Officials initially urged about half the Apex’s residents to evacuate, then expanded the request about two hours later to thousands more when a plume of smoke and chemicals moved.

Overnight, a yellow haze lingered over downtown, and residents as far as 2 miles away said they could see the plume or smell the chemicals, officials said.

The evacuation covered much of the west side of Apex, about 10 miles southwest of Raleigh. Authorities opened a shelter at an elementary school, where a few hundred residents and their pets waited for news about the fire.

Cory Cataldo said he and his wife and two young sons were awakened around 1 a.m. by a knock at the door, and a man told them to evacuate because of a chemical fire.

“That’s about all I needed to know,” said Mr. Cataldo, who said his wife and sons have asthma. “My first concern was just to get everybody out.”

Of those who didn’t evacuate, Mr. Radford said: “They are putting themselves in very grave danger by being around this smoke.”

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