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Delay in alerting public to dangerous Williston toxic chemical fire raises concerns

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WILLISTON, N.D. - 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.

"Results were coming in at levels that were not of concern," he said.

North Dakota Water Quality Director Karl Rockerman told The Associated Press testing of soil and water samples taken from the site were underway Wednesday.

North Dakota has seen a boom in energy production over the past few years and along with it a growing number of safety incidents from explosions of oil in train cars, to saltwater spills and fires at storage facilities caused by lightning strikes. State and local agencies have struggled to cope with ensuring safety and regulating the rapidly growing industry.

Hallesy admitted that more needs to be done to inform residents quickly about emergency situations.

Emergency workers had to go door to door to alert the few residents in the voluntary evacuation zone, he said.

Nicole Clarys, who works alongside Volesky near the scene of the fire, said she got her information about the fire on Facebook, where many oil patch residents shared photos and videos of the blaze and explosions.

There were "wild and conflicting stories" on social media about the fire, Hallesy said. His office has a Facebook page, but it has not really been utilized.

"I need a good Facebooker to teach an old dog like me a couple of tricks," he said.

Hallesy said the county and city are looking to start using the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (called IPAWS). The system is organized by FEMA and allows push notifications to be sent to cellphones. He said the system has been tested in the past few days.

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