North Carolina Chemical Fire Leads to Legal Action

Executives at Environmental Quality Co. may soon have much more to worry about than rebuilding their hazardous-waste plant. Three separate lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath of the Apex, N.C., chemical fire that sent a cloud of toxic fumes into the air and forced as many as 17,000 local residents to evacuate.

Two of the suits were filed in federal court and one in state court. All of these suits are seeking to achieve class-action status. Among the considerations are personal injury, property damage, lost wages, and business interruption.

According to the Raleigh News & Observer, local officials were told by EQ spokespeople that “the site contained pesticides, oxides, bulk sulfur, contaminated lead, and other contaminated metals at the time of the fire Thursday night.” The presence of toxic chlorine gas had also been detected in the area by municipal employees, but that has been denied by EQ officials. The paper quoted Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway as saying, “It’s literally the worst-case hazmat scenario you can have.” It is still unclear what lasting effects the fire and subsequent explosions will have on the local air and water quality.

Apex, a town of about 30,000 in the suburbs of Raleigh in western Wake County, was left shrouded in a yellow chemical haze after last week’s blaze. Hazardous plumes of smoke and fire shot as high as 200 feet in the air. Michigan-based EQ deals with a range of hazardous materials, including paints, solvents, and fertilizer. At the time of the blast, roughly 2,700 drums of chemical waste were being housed at the plant, which EQ had taken over in 2003.

On March 31 of this year, EQ was fined $32,000 for various violations by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. According to the Department’s Division of Waste Management, the EQ facility had failed 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.” They also failed to “immediately carry out the provisions of the contingency plan whenever there is a release of hazardous waste or constituents [that] threatens or could threaten human health or the environment.”

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