Originally created 06/13/06

Residents await all-clear as burning mill is tested



COLUMBIA - Air and water quality tests taken after a fire at a 75-year-old cotton mill in Great Falls show normal levels, but about 1,000 residents are still being told to stay away from their homes until the fire is completely out, state officials said Monday.

The residents were evacuated after a fire at the former JP Stevens No. 3 mill. Fire officials worked Monday to put out several hot spots, officials said.

When the smoldering fire is extinguished, an investigation will begin to determine several factors, including who was responsible for cleaning up debris at the partially closed mill, said Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Thom Berry.

"First officials have to determine what caused the fire, where it started," Mr. Berry said. "Then, at that point and time, there will also be an investigation into who is the owner of the property, who is using the property ... who would be then identified as the responsible party."

Firefighters battled the blaze for several hours after it started nearly a week ago, but then decided to let it burn out. The mill had a plastic recycling operation, which is where officials think the blaze started.

Hydrochloric acid levels in the smoke have been decreasing as hot spots are put out, DHEC said.

Hospitals had not seen any patients, but DHEC received a few calls about possible respiratory ailments, agency spokeswoman Claire Boatwright has said.

Officials said people won't be able to come home until firefighters can assure the fire won't flare up and air quality is normal.