CSB Calls for New National Fire Code for HazWaste Facilities

In a case study report released today on the October 2006 hazardous waste fire at the Environmental Quality Co. in Apex, N.C., the U.S. Chemical Safety Board calls 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. CSB also today released a 16-minute safety video on the incident, entitled "Emergency in Apex: Hazardous Waste Fire and Community Evacuation," available on free DVDs and on the agency's video Web site, www.chemsafety.gov.

The fire occurred on the night of October 5, 2006, after hours at the EQ hazardous waste transfer facility when the site was not staffed or monitored. Emergency responders did not have access to specific information on the hazardous chemicals stored at the facility 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 and accelerated the blaze.

"The only fire control equipment on-site consisted of portable, manually operated fire extinguishers," said CSB Supervisory Investigator Rob Hall, P.E. "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 designed to contain only 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.

Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act 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 OSHA rules requiring preparation of material safety data sheets.

The CSB report recommends that EPA require permitted hazardous waste facilities to 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. CSB also recommends that the Council petition the National Fire Protection Association--an organization that authors national fire codes--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, CSB says.

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