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Dyer suggested that downtown workers and residents shouldn't worry about debris falling from the sky or the ominous cloud now drifting among the high rises. By early evening, cars and homes in Columbus Park and in parts of downtown had become coated with ash. Large pieces of debris, like roofing tiles and something that looked like Styrofoam, were dropping into yards and onto homes. It was unlikely, Dyer said, that anything falling was dangerous.
But Dyer and the federal authorities had no proof to back up these claims. This is made clear in internal EPA and Kansas City Fire Department documents the Pitch obtained through requests for records.
The EPA says lengthy testing after the fire shows that the smoke and debris weren't dangerous. But according to the hundreds of pages of reports and e-mails, officials told the public that everything was safe long before those results were in.
Authorities used the smog detectors as the basis to give the all-clear, but EPA officials knew that the smog indicators couldn't be used to make that determination. The EPA says testing that night found that the cloud did not contain harmful chemicals, but those results did not come in until the following morning — long after the public had been told that the cloud was safe.
As for the debris, testing on the ash and larger chunks didn't begin until the following day. And when it did, scientists found that there may have been traces of toxic chemicals in some ash samples.
Officials also claimed that no water ran off from the plant, but now they acknowledge that thousands of gallons of potentially tainted water ended up in sewer systems, which ultimately flow into the Missouri River.
Recently, the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined ChemCentral a combined $560,260 for shoddy record keeping and failing to maintain safety standards at the plant. ChemCentral failed to notify the EPA of a deadly chemical kept there, the EPA claims, which could have hampered firefighters' ability to fight the blaze.
But in the six months since the fire, federal and local authorities have failed to address their own mistakes.
About an hour after the ChemCentral explosion, a twin-engine plane took off from a small airstrip in Waxahachie, Texas. The ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Collection Technology) plane was the EPA's best tool to determine whether the cloud was carrying deadly gasses across downtown.
It took two hours for the plane to reach Kansas City. By then, the massive cloud had churned 2,000 feet above the city. It was dusk, and the black smoke melded with the slate-gray sky. Ray Brindle, a former commercial pilot, was in the cockpit that day. He could see the well-defined cloud from 30 miles out. At 5:53 p.m., he steered the plane into a racetrack pattern to circle the smoke. "The fire was pretty spectacular," Brindle tells the Pitch. "Right away, we knew it was pretty serious."
Two sensors jutting out through holes on the belly of the plane began collecting data about the cloud's makeup. The plane's sensors pick up infrared energy, called photons, coming off the Earth's surface. When the photons pass through chemicals in the air, the chemicals interact with the photon beams. Scientists can then figure out what chemicals are present by analyzing the frequencies of energy absorbed in the air.
As the plane circled about 50 feet from the cloud, the data poured into an onboard computer station manned by the EPA's Baron Leger. The computer didn't tell Leger what it was picking up, only that data were coming in properly. The sensors can detect vapors from chemicals in a mile-wide area; on the computer screen, every pixel equals a foot and a half.