By RIC LATARSKI
CONYERS — Olde Town Conyers was turned into a ghost town Tuesday when a toxic gas cloud caused by an industrial fire floated over the city.
The smoke plume from the fire at BioLab on Rockdale Industrial Boulevard, which contained a variety of chlorine-based chemicals, drifted east, primarily on the north side of Interstate 20, and ultimately led to authorities ordering an evacuation of a 1-mile radius around the fire.
The cloud went directly over Olde Town and the Georgia International Horse Park (GIHP) and, at the high point of the fire, the cloud created a thick haze that made 8 a.m. appear more like early dusk and left a pungent smell in the air. BioLab is the world’s largest manufacturer of pool and spa supplies. The fire erupted during the early morning hours at the company’s distribution warehouse.
Businesses in the downtown area were closed, as were county offices, and activities at the Rockdale County Courthouse were suspended as authorities limited access to the area. Conyers city officials coordinated response to the fire with agencies such as the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) from its emergency communication center located at City Hall on Scott Street. The city made contingency plans to move its emergency communications center to a location south of I-20 had the situation required City Hall to be evacuated. Police officers were placed on 12-hour shifts and nonessential city personnel were sent home.
The Department of Motor Vehicle Safety facility, located in Conyers, also closed and personnel from that facility assisted in traffic control and the evacuation. Sections of I-20 were closed on more than one occasion as the fire fluctuated and FEMA authorized issuing gas masks to police officers who were working in the most affected areas.
Jennifer Bexley, spokeswoman for the city, said approximately 15 school buses provided by Rockdale County public schools were utilized to assist in the evacuation, with the initial effort focusing on the elderly and other individuals who would be considered at high risk to the effects of the noxious cloud.
City officials said the north side of the city was evacuated in four hours and approximately 400 people were relocated to emergency shelters. No serious injuries were reported, but a number of people were treated for respiratory irritation caused by the fumes.
Emergency shelters were set up at the J.H. House Elementary School and Heritage High School and as of press time it is unknown how long people will have to stay away from the area.
“How long people will have to remain out of the area will depend upon the weather and how long the fire burns,” said Bexley. “We will try and keep people advised of the situation as soon as we have new information.”
EPA officials were checking air quality in a number of locations throughout the area and last reports were that the fumes were dissipating.
As the fire continued to burn, there were concerns that as the air cooled during the evening hours the remaining toxic fumes could sink to ground level. Residents were being asked to stay away from the area overnight and concerns about visibility during the nighttime hours had officials announcing tentative plans to close I- 20 at 8 p.m.
Conyers Police Chief Tony Lucas and City Manger Rebecca Polizzotto monitored the situation through the communications center and kept Conyers Mayor Randy Mills informed via telephone every 30 minutes.
Mills, who was out of the city visiting relatives at Lake Oconee when he was alerted to the situation, said he went outside and was able to smell the effects of the fire.
“Next to the Heritage High School shooting, this is the most serious situation in Conyers I can remember,” said Mills. “You hate to see something like this, but the positive to this situation is the manner in which everyone responded and came together, and I think that is something we can all be proud of.”