Blaze at BioLab chokes county on chlorine fumes
Hundreds forced to evacuate, curfew imposed, interstate shut down
BY CRYSTAL TATUM
CONYERS — An early-morning explosion at BioLab Inc., a Conyers chemical manufacturer, produced a thick gray plume of toxic smoke half a mile wide running parallel to I-20 into Newton County Tuesday, shutting down the interstate and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.
The explosion occurred between 4 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. in a 200,000-square-foot distribution warehouse located at 1601 Rockdale Industrial Boulevard, where pool and spa chemicals were stored, according to Monty Eckles, vice president of manufacturing for BioLab. The cause of the explosion was unknown as of presstime.
About 10 of the plant’s 450 employees were present at the time of the explosion, Eckles said. None were injured, he said.
As of presstime at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sheriff Jeff Wigington of the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) and Chief Tony Lucas of the Conyers Police Department had issued orders for a mandatory curfew between the hours of 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. today.
“Obviously, this is changing moment by moment,” said RCSO Deputy Jodi Shupe. “Those who choose to go against the curfew will be stopped and questioned.”
The latest evacuated area is the Lakeview Estates complex off Lake Rockaway Road.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still investigating a chemical reaction that occurred at BioLab Inc. about six weeks ago. In that instance, intermediate chlorine ingredients began to decompose, creating a vapor cloud, according to Plant Manager Eusevio Roman. BioLab employees could not stop the reaction and contacted the company’s emergency response team and the Rockdale County Fire Department. The situation was contained within 15 minutes, Roman said. BioLab reported the incident to the EPA.
“That one’s still under investigation,” said EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young. More than 100 firefighters from multiple jurisdictions worked to contain the fire. Fire officials did not release an estimate of how long it would take for the fire to burn out.
“This is going to be a major operation for a long time,” said Capt. Eric Jackson, public information officer for the DeKalb County Fire Department.
By late afternoon, bulldozers were knocking down the warehouse’s walls and scraping the material together in the hopes of helping the burn to continue at a faster rate, thus preventing long-term smoldering.
“In a case like this, you want it to burn,” Jackson said, explaining that the quicker the building burns, the quicker it will burn out.
As of presstime, a team from the EPA’s National Response Center in Atlanta was still working to determine what chemicals might be contained in the smoke.
John Deutsch, an environmental scientist with the EPA, said preliminary reports indicate that as many as eight chemicals could be in the smoke, including as much as 1.5 million pounds of calcium hypochlorite, a chlorine compound used to chlorinate swimming pools and to treat water supplies and sewage. People on Lake Oconee, 45 miles east of the fire, reported smelling a chlorine odor. At least one person as far away as Columbia, S.C., some 200 miles east, said he could smell the odor.
Chlorine, used in World War I as a choking agent, can be extremely dangerous, damaging an exposed person’s eyes, throat and lungs. About two dozen people went to Rockdale Medical Center and Newton General Hospital with respiratory and other complaints related to chemical exposure, according to spokespersons for the hospitals.
About 400 area residents were evacuated due to the fire. Deputy Jodi Shupe with the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office said evacuees would not be allowed to return Tuesday night.
“We are not letting people back into the evacuated area,” Shupe said “EPA has declared the area around the fire unsafe. We’re at the mercy of this situation.”
Officials were also worried that colder nighttime temperatures could cause the smoke cloud to drop, which could mean limited visibility and more respiratory problems for nearby residents.
The EPA sent a high-tech sensory package known as an Airborne Spectral Photometric Collection Technology (ASPECT), into the smoke Tuesday afternoon to determine what chemicals besides chlorine might have been released.
“ASPECT gives emergency first responders on the ground critical information regarding the size, shape, composition and concentration of gas plumes emanating … from a fire like this,” said EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young, adding that ASPECT gives more accurate readings than ground air monitors.
A full report on ASPECT’s findings should be available today, Young said.
The EPA and Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) were also monitoring water runoff. A nearby pond had tested negative for contamination, said EPD Spokesman Kevin Chambers.
“Obviously, the goal is to contain the runoff from a big fire like this so that you don’t have it running loose out there,” Chambers said.
The agencies must determine whether the water is contaminated before deciding how to dispose of it, Chambers said.
“Either way, we’d pump it out of here,” he said.
BioLab would most likely work with an environmental contractor to clean up the fire damage, Chambers said.
Newton resident Denny Dobbs, who has been an environmental contractor for 30 years and worked for the EPA for eight years, estimated that a fire of this scope could take a month or more to clean up.
“It takes a pretty good crew to clean up a building that big,” Dobbs said. “It’s going to take a week or two just to get everything sorted out and get everything ready to go and start cleaning it up.”
Barbara Knowles and Sarah Barnes contributed to this report.