Article Archive
CSB releases study on N.C. hazmat fire
Volume 23, No. 3

In a case study report released in April on the October 2006 fire at a hazardous waste transfer facility in Apex, N.C., the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called for a new national fire code for hazardous waste facilities and for improving the information provided to community emergency planners about the chemicals those facilities store and handle.

The fire occurred on the night of Oct. 5, 2006, (see "Witch's Brew" in the Jan.-Feb. 2007 issue of IFW) at a hazardous waste transfer facility on Investment Boulevard in Apex, a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. The facility was not staffed or monitored after hours, and no employees were present at the time of the fire. Emergency responders did not have access to specific information on the hazardous chemicals stored at the site and ordered the precautionary evacuation of thousands of Apex residents. The evacuation order remained in place for two days, until the fire had subsided.

The CSB investigation found that a small fire originated in the facility's oxidizer storage bay, one of six storage bays where different wastes were consolidated, stored, and prepared for transfer off-site to treatment and disposal facilities. Within the oxidizer bay were a number of chemical oxygen generators, which had earlier been removed from aircraft during routine maintenance at a facility in Mobile, Alabama. However, they had not been safely activated and discharged before entering the waste stream. Solid chlorine-based pool chemicals were stacked on top of the box containing still functional oxygen generators.

Apex firefighters initially responded to a 911 emergency call from a resident driving past the facility, who reported observing a haze with a "strong chlorine smell." When firefighters arrived, they discovered what was still a small "sofa-size" fire. But that fire spread quickly, most likely as the aircraft oxygen generators discharged, accelerating the blaze.

"The only fire control equipment on-site consisted of portable, manually operated fire extinguishers," said CSB Supervisory Investigator Rob Hall, P.E., who led the investigation. "The facility lacked fire walls and automatic fire suppression systems. As a result, the fire spread quickly into other bays where flammables, corrosives, laboratory wastes, paints, and pesticides were stored." The bays were separated by six-inch-high curbs only designed to contain liquid spills.

The facility was destroyed in the ensuing fire and explosions, which sent fireballs hundreds of feet into the air. 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.

Hazardous waste facilities like EQ's are regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The investigation noted that RCRA regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require facilities to have "fire control equipment" but do not specify what equipment and systems should be in place. In addition, there is no national fire code to define good fire protection practices for hazardous waste facilities.

The CSB identified 22 other hazardous waste fires, explosions, and releases that have occurred at U.S. hazardous waste facilities in the past five years. More than a third had adverse community impacts, such as evacuations, orders to shelter, and transportation disruptions.

Federal RCRA regulations require operators to "familiarize" local responders in advance concerning facility hazards, but do not describe what specific information must be shared about stored chemicals, or define the frequency of communications. Similarly, EPA regulations under the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act do not require facilities to share information about hazardous wastes with local agencies, since those wastes are generally exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules requiring preparation of material safety data sheets (MSDSs).

In fact, the investigation found that this facility had limited contact with the Apex Fire Department prior to the October 2006 fire.

"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."

The CSB report recommended the EPA require that permitted hazardous waste facilities periodically provide specific, written information to state and local response officials on the type, approximate quantities, and location of hazardous materials.

The Board called on the Environmental Technology Council, a trade association representing about 80 percent of the U.S. hazardous waste industry, to develop standardized guidance on waste handling and storage to prevent releases and fires. The CSB also recommended that the council petition the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)to develop a specific fire protection standard for the hazardous waste industry. The new standard should address fire prevention, detection, control, and suppression. Similar NFPA standards already exist for other industries, such as wastewater treatment.

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