Residents evacuated from a North Carolina town following last week's major fire at a chemical handling facility were allowed to return home Saturday. But an environmental watchdog group warns that the proper testing has not been done to ensure their safety -- and that instructions given by officials could in fact jeopardize the ongoing investigation and any legal action.

Greenpeace yesterday faxed letters to federal and state regulators calling for comprehensive testing of homes, schools and daycare centers following last week's major fire at the Environmental Quality Co. facility in Apex, N.C. The letters were addressed to federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary William Ross. (For a copy of the EPA letter, click here. For a copy of the N.C. DENR letter, click here.)

"Although there have been numerous announcements that it is safe for residents ... to return to their community, these assurances are being made without information being made available to the public, " according to a statement issued yesterday by the group. "No information is yet available regarding what chemicals were emitted at the fire. It is of grave concern that initial reports of chemicals onsite such as chlorine can form toxic gases that can become trapped in basements and low-lying areas without proper ventilation."

EPA and DENR have declared the town safe following testing of air and surface water. However, the agencies have not tested swipe samples from homes or schools or analyzed sediments deposited in yards from the massive fire and subsequent rains. Greenpeace points out that after a 2004 fire at a chemical facility in Illinois, regulators tested homes and schools for dioxin, a carcinogen sometimes produced in chemical fires.

EPA and DENR officials were meeting today to discuss future testing, DENR spokesperson Diana Kees reports.

As of this morning, regulators were still unsure exactly what materials were present at the Apex facility when the fire broke out Thursday night. Kees says the company had a comprehensive list of materials onsite in its Apex administrative offices, which were not damaged in the incident. The blaze burned out of control until early Saturday, when firefighters began using special chemicals to quell the flames. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Eyewitness reports described what appeared to be a yellowish cloud of chlorine gas hovering over downtown Apex late Thursday and early Friday. The facility was permitted by the state to handle a long list of extremely toxic compounds including heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, solvents like trichloroethylene and methylene chloride, pesticides including 2,4-D and aldicarb, and numerous benzene compounds.

Greenpeace is concerned that Apex residents may have been getting problematic information from authorities. The group notes that Wake County's Web site advised residents to clean their homes and discard items such as medicines that had been left open, and news reports have showed residents throwing away potentially contaminated property.

"There may be serious legal implications that could put victims at a disadvantage if they wash or throw away property that is contaminated," the group's statement says. "Contaminated property may well be evidence that will indicate what chemicals entered their home or yard and to what extent EQ is responsible for clean up and compensation."

A lawsuit has already been filed on behalf of Apex residents. Meanwhile, EQ is still facing lawsuits related to a fire at one of its Michigan plants last year.

The Michigan-based EQ was fined $32,000 by North Carolina regulators earlier this year for a number of problems at the Apex facility. They included the failure to "maintain and operate the facility to minimize the possibility of a sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste constituents to air, soil or surface water which could threaten human health or the environment."