CSB Pursues Investigation of North Carolina Hazardous Waste Fire; Says Likely Origin in Facility's Oxidizer Section

October 30, 2006

Washington, DC, October 30, 2006 - The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) today announced it is pursuing an investigation of the fire that burned from October 5 to 7 at the EQ North Carolina hazardous waste transfer and processing facility and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from the Raleigh suburb of Apex.

No serious acute injuries occurred, but a number of responders and others were examined for chemical exposure and released.

The CSB investigation, which is expected to take six to 12 months to complete, will lead to a written case study, bulletin, or report that will be released to the public and likely contain new safety recommendations.

CSB Supervising Investigator Robert Hall, PE, said that his team had completed detailed first-round interviews of company employees, community members, and first responders and has begun reviewing documents obtained from EQ. "Credible evidence indicates that the incident likely began in the oxidizer section of the facility, where chemicals such as pool chlorination tablets were stored."

Mr. Hall said that a chemical cloud was observed rising from the oxidizer storage area before the fire was evident. The facility had multiple storage bays for hazardous wastes such as oxidizers, flammables, acids, and bases. When the first firefighters arrived, they found a small fire approximately the size of two pallets. Within minutes, the fire spread directly into an adjacent bay containing highly flammable solvents. The fire grew out of control and was eventually allowed to burn itself out.

"The emergency response to the fire was appropriate, efficient, and precautionary," Mr. Hall said, noting that attempting to fight such a fire with water could have led to environmental contamination. "Emergency responders initially sheltered residents in place near the source of the chemical release and evacuated those farther away. Once the chemical plume had dissipated to some extent, the sheltered residents were also evacuated."

Because of the lack of surviving physical evidence, it is unlikely that the exact source of the chemical cloud will be discovered. However, witness observations are consistent with an incompatible chemical mixture that resulted in an uncontrolled chemical reaction. Such a reaction could have produced flammable vapors and sufficient heat to cause ignition.

Mr. Hall said that normal operations at the plant involved consolidating similar wastes for shipment off-site. "We plan to carefully review the company's practices for determining the compatibility of waste materials as well as the training provided to workers involved in those operations," Mr. Hall said. He said workers involved in hazardous waste operations are required by federal regulations to undergo 40 hours of specialized safety training before they begin work.

CSB Chairman Carolyn W. Merritt said, "The fire in Apex raises a number of questions, including whether better fire detection, protection, firewalls, and separation measures could improve the safety of hazardous waste facilities -- especially those close to residential neighborhoods. In addition, we must be sure that emergency responders have access to accurate, timely information about the contents of such facilities so they can make the best decisions to protect our communities," Chairman Merritt added. She said that cooperation between the CSB and local authorities in Apex has been exemplary.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems. The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Please visit our website, www.CSB.gov.

For more information, contact Sandy Gilmour at (202) 261-7613 or (202) 251-5496 cell or Jennifer Jones at (202) 261-3603.

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