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Experts check for environmental contamination at Palm Harbor fire scene

PALM HARBOR — While authorities investigate the blaze that destroyed part of a storage facility early Wednesday, state officials are taking precautions to ensure the fire did not cause any environmental damage.

Firefighters responded to the Florida West Covered Storage facility at 4470 Alt. U.S. 19 about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. Explosions and multiple fires sparked as crews tried to control the three-alarm fire, authorities said.

In the end, the flames destroyed more than 40 cars, RV's and boats. Fire officials estimate the damage is in the millions of dollars.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection official inspected nearby bodies of water Wednesday and found that a retention pond on the east side of the property had been contaminated with "firefighting runoff," including diesel from the vehicles that burned in the blaze, said DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger.

Fire crews used more than 300,000 gallons of water to extinguish the fire.

The pond, located on the storage facility property just west of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, was drained Wednesday night. Officials placed an absorbent boom in a storm drain outside the property fence in "an abundance of caution," Burger said.

Crews also collected soil samples from the property Thursday that will be sent to a lab.

"If the data shows that soil was impacted, it will be excavated," Burger said.

Meanwhile, fire officials are still trying to determine what caused the blaze, said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue deputy chief Bob Markford.

The investigation won't progress until the roof of the 23,200-square-foot storage building – now a melted sheet of metal draped atop the charred vehicles – is removed carefully with heavy machinery next week.

Authorities could remove the roof now with smaller equipment, but Markford said they are taking a more "methodical" approach out of concern about damaging evidence important to the investigation.

"It's developed into quite a monster," Markford said of the investigation, which involves several agencies, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and a state fire marshal.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

Experts check for environmental contamination at Palm Harbor fire scene 03/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014 5:21pm]
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