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Slow public alert on Williston fire raises concern

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 23, 2014 at 8:56 pm •  Published: July 23, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — When Aaron Volesky heard what he thought was thunder and walked outside his Williston home early Tuesday morning he thought it was odd that there were no storm clouds in the air.

It wasn't thunder he heard. An explosion and fire at an oil field service supply company where dozens of toxic chemicals were stored sent fireballs and thick plumes of smoked hundreds of feet into the air.

Local authorities did not issue their first press release notifying the public until 6:24 a.m., more than six hours after the fire began.

"They should have done more," Volesky said of the slow release of information on a potentially dangerous incident.

Officials say the blaze at Red River Supply began about midnight Monday and burned most of Tuesday. State records show that the facility stored dozens of chemicals, many of which likely burned in the fire according to Williams County Emergency Manager Mike Hallesy. No one was injured or killed in the blast because it was at an industrial area — not residential — was late at night and the wind did not take it toward the town, he said.

Concerned with the potential health impacts of the smoke plume, law enforcement officers put in place a half-mile cordon on Tuesday and authorities said they urged the few residents in the immediate vicinity of the industrial area to evacuate. The plume also prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to halt flights in and out of Williston for six hours on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, North Dakota Department of Health Air Quality Director Terry O'Clair said air quality tests done by his agency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not find worrying levels of contamination, as was initially feared.

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