Apex fire: The rush to wait and see | Wake County | Indy Week

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Apex fire: The rush to wait and see

Chemical company passed recent inspection, but hadn't paid previous fine

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The frenzy surrounding the Apex chemical fire provided as much excitement as the smoke and flames. A swarm of reporters, regulators, lawyers and politicians descended on the scene and provided breathless, non-stop coverage for the masses. In the information age, it's volume that counts.

The scene had its surreal moments. In an effort to keep gawkers away from the Environmental Quality facility, Apex town manager Bruce Radford told reporters that the toxic fumes were extremely dangerous and warned, "If they choose to come, go ahead and write their names on their foreheads and the names of their next of kin." In another statement Radford noted that investigators trying to access the site were wearing full hazmat suits.

That didn't stop TV crews and photographers from skirting roadblocks to get as close as they could to the blaze without so much as a surgical mask. News & Observer photographer Chris Seward snapped fireball shots that made Page 1, then wrote a story detailing how he got within 100 feet of the facility. On Friday morning, WRAL broadcast scenes of smoke and flames from directly outside the plant gate. "We didn't stay there very long," reporter Melissa Buscher announced blithely as the camera zoomed in on burning debris. "We got out of there very quickly when we realized what we'd come upon."

Apparently Buscher and her crew needed some help reaching that conclusion--Apex police officers detained the WRAL crew and briefly confiscated their cameras before demanding that they leave the scene and not return, a story that quickly made the rounds of the other news crews milling about the town.

The crowds have now dissipated along with the smoke, leaving a handful of investigators to comb through the rubble for clues. For all the spectacle, the hours of footage and multiple column inches, however, the amount of truly enlightening information offered to the public can be distilled into a few sentences: There was a fire at a chemical storage plant. No one knows precisely what burned, or what the possible health and economic consequences are. A few thousand Apex residents evacuated, most stayed, more than 40 were treated for respiratory problems. An investigation that could take more than a year may yield the cause, or it may not. Lawsuits have been filed. The plant had been fined by the state for safety violations in the past, but no violations have been noted in recent inspections.

Not much to work with there.

Those few nuggets have been largely buried under a pile of conflicting information and rhetoric. State air and water quality tests have come up negative in the aftermath, even as local officials warned residents to wash their clothes, scrub their counters and bathe their pets. Details of a $32,000 fine levied in March against the company for permit violations--and who was notified about it--differed from account to account. And all omitted a key fact: The fine has never been paid. "The information I have is that [the fine] is being contested in court," says state Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokeswoman Diana Kees.

The three lawsuits filed against Environmental Quality to date offer little substance, a hefty dose of sensational speculation and some factual errors. They variously include statements that the fire sent a cloud of chlorine gas into the air (doubtful), jumped the plant fence and ignited four neighboring petroleum storage tanks (false), and that 17,000 people evacuated the town (only about 4,000 actually left).

Emblematic of the lawsuits' tenor, one of them inflated Radford's off-the-cuff comment at a news conference ("It is the worst potential hazardous materials fire that you can expect") into a claim of Bhopal-like proportions: "This is the worst possible hazardous materials fire [that could occur] anytime, anywhere."

One might expect more from a formidable lineup of prominent personal-injury attorneys from around the country whose case resumes include chlorine releases, Vioxx, asbestos, plane crashes, the Exxon Valdez and the mouse in Wendy's chili. But the suits were rushed to the courthouse--two were filed less than 24 hours after the fire started, and advertising for clients began that day and has escalated since. Though the cases will take years to litigate and will be tough to win, the lawyers say they filed them quickly not to beat the competition, but so their clients could get relief that much sooner. Each of the class-action suits claims the potential number of plaintiffs as 17,000, though the three current filings list only four clients between them.

Mike Borden, one of the plaintiffs, says he contacted a lawyer immediately because "I wanted quick responses. I wanted quick answers." But Borden is likely to be frustrated in that mission, and not just because the suits will plod endlessly through the legal system. The federal Chemical Safety Board is making a preliminary investigation into the cause of the fire, and if the board chooses to pursue it, the full investigation could take more than a year. If not, the state will have to come to conclusions on its own, which poses an additional challenge--state inspection records show that Environmental Quality's record has been clean since the last problems were noted in December 2005, and a two-day inspection just a week before the fire found no violations.

Borden, who lives less than a mile from Environmental Quality, says he had no idea that a chemical storage facility was in such close proximity to his home, and like many Apex residents, he wants it gone. The lawsuit, he says, puts the company on notice that "we know who you are, and we're coming after you." But the company is insured against losses from such disasters, and a chemical facility has been permitted at that location for 18 years, well before Borden's subdivision was built and Apex exploded beyond its original boundaries in the 1990s. Environmental Quality hasn't decided whether to rebuild and reopen, but that decision will likely depend more on economics than neighborhood sentiment.

That prospect, combined with the uncertainty surrounding the blaze and its fallout, has left some residents with a sense of fear and foreboding. "I knew about Shearon Harris, but I had no idea about [the chemical facility]," says Suellen Beaulieu, who lives about a mile from the plant and is suing over the affair. Beaulieu says she's worried about possible long-term health affects on those exposed to the fumes, including her housemate and cat, which has developed a cough. "We walk every day," she says. "I'm concerned about what we're walking on."

For updates on the environmental impact of the fire, go to Raleigh Eco News, an online environmental report maintained by Independent Weekly contributor Sue Sturgis. Look for the item entitled "Chemicals permitted at burned Apex plant" for a list of the chemicals Environmental Quality was allowed to have at the site.

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