Athens chemical fire probe delayed

Site of Wednesday blaze still too hot to investigate

David Manning/ Morris News Service
Workers decontaminate equipment Thursday following Wednesday’s fire at J&J Chemical Co. in northeast Clarke County.
Friday, July 30, 2010 5:28 AM
Last updated 5:30 AM
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Investigators on Thursday decided it was too dangerous for anyone to enter the remains of a chemical plant that was destroyed by fire the day before in Clarke County

An Athens-Clarke firefighter walks past a fireball erupting Wednesday from the remains of J&J Chemical Co. in Northeastern Clarke County. The fire began about midnight and burned through most of the day Wednesday. The company manufactures restroom deodorizers, graffiti remover and other products that contain toxic chemicals.  David Manning/ Morris News Service
David Manning/ Morris News Service
An Athens-Clarke firefighter walks past a fireball erupting Wednesday from the remains of J&J Chemical Co. in Northeastern Clarke County. The fire began about midnight and burned through most of the day Wednesday. The company manufactures restroom deodorizers, graffiti remover and other products that contain toxic chemicals.

The probe of the fire at J&J Chemical Co. likely won't begin in earnest until today, after the building cooled some more and airborne toxins dissipate, Athens-Clarke fire Inspector Harold Williams said.

"It's still too hot to go in at this time," Williams said Thursday. "It looks like today is a cooling-off day, and tomorrow will be the working day."

Williams and officials from the state Environmental Protection Division, along with employees of a private environmental cleanup firm, conferred at the scene in Athens Technology Park off Olympic Drive to decide a plan of action.

The fire inspector wore a gas mask as he walked the perimeter of the still-smoldering chemical plant, a 30,000-square-foot metal structure with steel beams that were super-heated by Wednesday's spectacular blaze.

And more than 36 hours after the fire broke out about midnight Wednesday, monitors showed elevated levels of airborne toxins at the fire scene, officials said.

The air is safe to breathe outside the immediate fire scene, according to officials.

Some walls and sections of the chemical plant's roof already collapsed, and others appeared as though they might.

"Right now, I'm not going in there, and I wouldn't expect anyone else to," Williams told colleagues.

During the fire, huge orange fireballs erupted and barrels of chemicals shot into the air like missiles as they exploded from the intense heat. Firefighters extinguished brush fires sparked by flaming debris and chemicals, threatening to spread to a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant.

One firefighter likened the flaming chemicals that streamed from the plant to a lava flow.

The chemicals made their way to a nearby stream that empties into Trail Creek, which feeds into the North Oconee River.

The chemicals included methanol, formaldehyde and para-dichlorobenzene - labeled possible carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - along with dye that turned Trail Creek blue and killed fish and other water creatures, according to Ted Jackson, EPD's Environmental Emergency and Radiation Program manager.

EPD scientists will analyze soil and water samples to determine the extent of contamination so environmental cleanup crews know where to go, but they won't have results for a couple of days, he said.

Cleanup at the fire scene itself should begin today, officials said.

Even before they enter the chemical plant, fire officials know that the fire likely began in the warehouse, which did not have a sprinkler system and was destroyed, Williams said. Flames spread to the opposite side of the building, where administrative offices were located.

That's where firefighters took a stand, trying to preserve the family-owned company's vital records and other documents, but intense heat and toxic fumes caused them to retreat and let the fire burn itself out, officials said.

J&J Chemical began in 1967 in Fort Lauderdale. The business moved to Bogart in 1994, then relocated to Athens Technology Park in 2002, where it employed about 25 people.


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