Flames shoot about 150 feet into the air at a hazardous materials fire at the Environmental Quality plant in Apex, NC. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
Special Hazards Fire Investigation
CSB investigators describe their examination of an explosion at a hazardous waste facility.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2008
By Robert J. Hall, Jeffrey J. Wanko, and Mary E. Nikityn
EQ, headquartered in Wayne, Michigan, operates hazardous and nonhazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities at 20 locations in the United States. The EQ facility in Apex provided hazardous and nonhazardous waste bulking, solidification, storage, and transfer. Among the businesses EQ North Carolina (EQNC) served were research and development facilities, educational institutions, manufacturing companies, government entities, retail stores, and medical facilities.
EQ normally operated Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. with a staff of 15 and 12 contract employees. The facility consisted of a two-story building with offices, an employee changing room, a chemical laboratory, and a nonhazardous waste processing area, as well as a one-story building for hazardous waste handling.
The hazardous materials building had a metal, pitched roof, metal walls enclosing opposite ends, and open sides. Inside the building were six bays for handling and storing the hazardous waste. An elevated shipping and receiving dock in the center of the building and curbs 6 inches (15 centimeters) high by 3 feet (1 meter) wide separated the bays. EQNC designated each bay for a specific waste type to separate incompatible materials, which when mixed, might have reacted with each other, producing heat, fire, or toxic vapors (see Figure 1).
Portable fire extinguishers located in the bays on each side of the central dock provided fire protection for the building. A chain-link fence with a padlocked gate secured the facility.
What are we dealing with here?
At 9:38 p.m. on October 5, 2006, a citizen called the Apex 911 dispatch center reporting haze and a “strong chlorine smell” at the EQNC facility. Responding Apex Fire Department personnel discovered a chemical cloud. The Apex Fire Chief, acting as the incident commander (IC), sent two firefighter reconnaissance teams in personal protective equipment to investigate the source.
In one of the hazardous waste bays, the firefighters located a small, “sofa-sized” fire that spread within minutes to the flammable liquid storage area, causing 55-gallon (208-liter) drums of flammable hazardous waste to explode, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air.
Because of the unknown nature of the burning chemicals and the exploding drums, the IC chose to take defensive actions to minimize the risk to emergency personnel and community residents, and allowed the fire to consume the chemicals in the facility. The IC also ordered a precautionary evacuation of thousands of residents in the surrounding community. A reverse 911 system called homes in the evacuation area and communicated the order with a recorded message. Several television stations also ran a ticker notification message. In addition, the IC limited access on roads leading into the evacuation area, stopped rail traffic through the community, and closed off air space over the facility.
The evacuation area included about 3,300 homes, the town hall, a fire station, and the town 911 center. Apex 911 personnel transferred incoming 911 calls to the Raleigh 911 center. Officials established an emergency operations center outside the evacuation area to provide a safe gathering place for emergency responders, state and federal officials, and media representatives.
Evacuees from the community sheltered at designated elementary schools, in hotels, or with relatives outside the evacuation area. The Red Cross, other community organizations, and businesses helped residents by providing bedding, food, and communication services.
The IC continued the evacuation order for two days because of potential reignition and persistent smoke from the smoldering rubble.
Mitigating the hazard
The fire department was not the only agency on the scene. The North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (NCDENR) Divisions of Air Quality, Water Quality, Environmental Heath, Waste Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also responded. About five hours after the fire was first reported, the NCDENR and the EPA began monitoring air in the area. In addition to ground-level monitoring, the EPA conducted 10 flyovers with its airborne spectral photographic environmental collection technology aircraft.
In the weeks following the incident, the NCDENR looked for residual contamination by conducting soil, indoor environmental, and exterior swipe sampling for a range of organic and inorganic materials. On November 17, 2006, the NCDENR reported that “environmental tests show no offsite contamination from EQ fire.”
On the day after the explosion, EQ contracted with a company specializing in environmental monitoring, testing, and assessment to conduct its own ground-level atmospheric monitoring. In addition, the company contracted an industrial firefighting and environmental cleanup company with specialized equipment to extinguish the fire and clean up the site. The contractor built sand berms to minimize water runoff that could possibly contaminate an adjacent stream, removed the roof and structural steel to gain access to the burning waste, extinguished the fire with foam, and removed all debris and hazardous waste from the site.
Investigating the incident
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) was called on to investigate the fire and subsequent evacuation. The CSB is an independent federal agency whose mission is to ensure the safety of workers, the public, and the environment by investigating and preventing chemical incidents. A scientific investigative organization, the CSB is not an enforcement or regulatory body. It was established by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and it is responsible for determining the root and contributing causes of accidents, issuing safety recommendations, studying chemical safety issues, and evaluating the effectiveness of other government agencies involved in chemical safety.
According to the CSB investigation report, the EQNC hazardous waste building was not required to have fire or smoke detection sensors, even though the facility stored hundreds of 55-gallon (208-liter) drums of flammable and combustible materials. Nor was it monitored at night or on weekends. Continuous monitoring by personnel or with remotely monitored sensors can alert company personnel and first responders at the inception of a fire. This may give first responders additional time to initiate emergency actions before the situation grows out of control.
Portable fire extinguishers were the only fire control equipment in the hazardous waste building. The curbs in the segregated areas could contain spills within the bays but would not prevent a fire from spreading from one bay to another. Had EQNC used fire barriers to separate the segregated waste bays, the fire would probably have been contained within the oxidizer bay, significantly mitigating the incident’s consequences. However, fire barriers were not required.
The initial “sofa-sized” fire occurred in the oxidizer bay where a fiberboard container of unspent aircraft oxygen generators and containers of solid chlorine-based pool chemicals were awaiting final shipment.1 However, the cause of this initial fire remains undetermined. In the debris, investigators found an oxygen generator with its activation pin in place, indicating that it was unspent when the fire started. These canisters produce oxygen by chemical reaction, which is activated when the pin is pulled. Because oxygen generators were located at or near the origin of the fire and, when exposed to fire, produce oxygen that significantly increases the intensity of a fire, the CSB concluded that the unspent oxygen generators probably contributed to the rapid spread of the blaze to the adjacent bay where flammable hazardous wastes were stored.
A CSB review of fire protection practices at 12 other hazardous waste facilities in North Carolina and other states showed wide variation. Some facilities use active fire suppression systems to control or extinguish fires, some use fire barriers, and others, like EQNC, rely only on portable fire extinguishers.
On a federal level, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) authorizes the EPA to regulate the generation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. EPA regulations implementing RCRA provide a “cradle-to-grave” management system for hazardous waste that allows generators, transporters, and facilities that treat, store, and dispose of hazardous waste to take responsibility for hazardous waste from delivery through final disposal to protect the public and the environment.
In most cases, the EPA authorizes states to implement the RCRA hazardous waste management program. State regulations must be at least as stringent as, and may be more stringent than, the federal regulations.
EPA regulations implementing RCRA require businesses that generate hazardous waste to send the waste to a treatment, storage, or disposal facility (TSDF) permitted by the EPA or state environmental regulatory authority—NCDENR, in this case—to store, treat, or otherwise dispose of the waste. The EPA regulations establish minimum requirements for TSDF permits.2 The permit is a facility-specific document that grants the facility the authority to store, treat, or dispose of hazardous waste as described in its permit application for a period of 10 years. Permit requirements include, but are not limited to:
a waste analysis plan;
an ignitable, reactive, and incompatible waste control plan;
emergency preparedness and prevention, including fire protection and communication;
a contingency plan and emergency procedures;
arrangements with local authorities that include sharing copies of the contingency plan;
management of containers, tanks, surface impoundments, and waste piles; and
financial assurance for closure and post-closure and liability.
The regulatory authority routinely inspects permitted TSDFs. In this case, NCDENR inspected the EQNC facility several times each month. Inspections included reviewing documentation and operations to verify TSDF compliance with permit requirements.
For fire protection requirements, EPA regulations state that, “All facilities must be equipped with the following, unless [italics in original] it can be demonstrated to the [EPA] Regional Administrator that none of the hazards posed by waste handled at the facility could require a particular kind of equipment specified in the excerpt below:
...(c) Portable fire extinguishers, fire control equipment (including special extinguishing equipment, such as that using foam, inert gas, or dry chemicals), spill control equipment, and decontamination equipment; and (d) Water at adequate volume and pressure to supply water hose streams, or foam producing equipment, or automatic sprinklers, or water spray systems.”3
These are the only fire protection measures that EPA regulations require for TSDFs. EPA regulations do not require a fire protection professional or local fire officials to review the fire protection measures. And although EPA regulations implementing RCRA require that facilities be equipped with “fire control equipment,” no EPA guidance or industry standard is available to facility owners, permitting agencies, or local fire officials to establish appropriate fire prevention, detection, control, and suppression measures.
In any case, EQNC had no fire or smoke detection sensors, automated fire suppression equipment, or fire barriers, even though the facility stored hundreds of drums of flammable and combustible materials.
As for emergency planning requirements, EPA regulations require TSDFs to have a contingency plan outlining actions facility personnel will take in case of emergency, the arrangements the facility has with local authorities, and the location of emergency equipment within the facility. TSDFs must share the contingency plan with local authorities, including fire and police departments. EQ could not provide any documented evidence that this requirement was met.
In addition to the contingency plan, EPA regulations require facilities to make “[a]rrangements to familiarize police, fire departments, and emergency response teams with the layout of the facility, properties of hazardous waste handled at the facility and associated hazards, places where facility personnel would normally be working, entrances to and roads inside the facility, and possible evacuation routes.”4 EQNC had limited contact with the Apex Fire Department before the October 5, 2006 fire, having the Apex fire chief tour the facility only once.
Although this requirement mandates that the facility operator familiarize local authorities with the facility, its layout, and its hazards, the requirements do not explicitly state what information must be shared, whether the information must be written, or if updates are necessary. EQNC did not provide the fire department or county emergency agency with any written information on the types, quantities, and locations of the hazardous materials in the facility before the incident.
Ultimately, the EQNC hazardous waste building collapsed. During the incident, about 30 people, including 13 first responders, sought medical attention at local hospitals for respiratory distress and nausea. Some were treated, but none was admitted. Following the fire, EQ discontinued operations in Apex.
Because the EPA regulations implementing RCRA do not explicitly state what fire protection information must be shared, whether the information should be written, or if updates are necessary, the number of fires at hazardous waste buildings each year, the disruption of the community, and the loss of entire businesses make addressing this gap a very important task.
The CSB issued a Safety Advisory in June 2007 addressing the hazards associated with transporting and storing expired, unspent aircraft chemical oxygen generators.
EPA regulation 40 CFR 264, “Standards for Owners and Operators of Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities.”
40 CFR 264.32
40 CFR 264.37
Robert J. Hall, P.E., is an investigations supervisor with the CSB and served as the investigator in charge for the Apex, North Carolina, incident. Jeffrey J. Wanko, P.E., C.S.P., is an investigator with the CSB. He serves on NFPA’s Flammable and Combustible Liquids and Handling and Conveying of Dusts, Vapors, and Gases technical committees. Mary E. Nikityn is an investigator with the CSB. She has experience in the hazardous materials and hazardous wastes regulatory compliance industry.