When investigating the October 2006 fire at the EQ hazardous waste transfer facility, CSB officials found that the facility was not staffed or monitored after hours and no employees were present at the time of the fire. As a result, emergency responders didn't have access to specific information on the hazardous chemicals stored at the site and ordered the evacuation of all nearby residents as a precautionary measure.
The report also stated that the facility lacked tools to control fires, such as firewalls or suppression systems. Officials said the facility wasn't prepared for after-hours fires.
"As a result, the fire spread quickly into other bays where flammables, corrosives, laboratory wastes, paints and pesticides were stored," said CSB Supervisory Investigator Rob Hall, who also noted that the only fire control equipment on site were portable, manually operated fire extinguishers.
The facility was destroyed in the ensuing fire and explosions, which sent fireballs hundreds of feet into the air. While no one was injured, about 30 people, including one firefighter and 12 police officers, required medical evaluation at local hospitals for respiratory distress and other symptoms that occurred as a plume from the fire drifted across the area.
Fire Code Should Address Fire Prevention, Detection
CSB called on the Environmental Technology Council, a trade association representing about 80 percent of the U.S. hazardous waste industry, to work with the National Fire Protection Association to help establish a national fire code to define good fire protection practices for hazardous waste facilities. The new standard, CSB said, should address fire prevention, detection, control and suppression. Similar NFPA standards already exist for other industries, such as wastewater treatment.
Hazardous waste facilities like EQ are regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The investigation noted that RCRA regulations developed by EPA require facilities to have “fire control equipment” but do not specify what equipment and systems should be in place.
CSB recommended that EPA require hazardous waste facilities to periodically inform state and local officials about the type and quantity of materials held on site. Current requirements only state that hazardous waste center operators must "familiarize" local responders with facility hazards.
“Specific, accurate, up-to-date information on chemical hazards is essential to emergency response planning,” said CSB Board Member William Wark, who accompanied the investigative team to Apex in October 2006. “Communities have a fundamental right to know about stored hazardous chemicals that may affect their health and well-being. For first responders, having prompt access to such information is a matter of basic life safety.”
New Safety Video Accompanies Report
In addition, CSB also released a new safety video, titled “Emergency in Apex – Hazardous Waste Fire and Community Evacuation,” to accompany the Apex final report. It features a computerized animation depicting the sequence of events leading from a small fire in an oxidizer storage and transfer bay to a large fire and series of explosions at EQ.
According to CSB Chairman John Bresland, the video is a useful tool for first responder, especially for those who managed the crisis.
“We think emergency responders and local government leaders across the country will benefit from the descriptions of the event from those who managed the two-day crisis, not knowing precisely what chemicals were burning at the facility,” he said.
The video is available on free DVDs and on the agency's video Web site, http://www.safetyvideos.gov.