A waste management factory which exploded into a fireball sending a toxic black plume over Melbourne had been storing almost three times the quantity of chemicals permitted.
The inferno at suburban Campbellfield was sparked about 6.40am on Friday and although under control by shortly after midday, is expected to burn for days.
Operators of the Campbellfield business had their licence suspended by the Environmental Protection Agency in March after being repeatedly found storing too much highly-flammable material.
“We inspected the premises and found three times the amount of material being stored on the premise than it was licensed to store,” the authority’s Damian Wells said.
Storage containers were also inadequately labelled and being handled outside an appropriate area.
The address is registered to Bradbury Industrial Services, a toxic waste disposal company.
The factory is allowed to hold a maximum 150,000 litres of waste material, including solvents, inks, paints and other flammable materials, before being processed.
Metropolitan Fire Brigade chief officer Dan Stephens said crews found the 2500 square metre Campbellfield premises fully engulfed and at risk of collapse, and there were fears the flames would reach a nearby industrial gas tank.
“This is likely to be a protracted incident that will be ongoing for a number of days,” he added.
Mr Stephens likened the blaze to a toxic West Footscray fire last August, which took almost a day to control.
Witnesses reported a number of explosions as the inferno spewed large volumes of black smoke.
Boilermaker Alexander Powell, 28, who works next to the factory, heard the explosion through his earplugs.
“There was a large fireball probably about 40 storeys high. I was wearing earplugs at the time, the noise was enormous, you could feel the heat bearing down on you, so we moved away,” he told AAP.
Nearby businesses were forced to evacuate. One person was taken to hospital for an eye injury and another for burns, a WorkSafe spokesman said.
A couple of firefighters were also treated for heat stress.
The education department closed six local state schools as a precaution.
The EPA confirmed Merlynston creek had been contaminated by run off.
Marcus Harrington, who lives at neighbouring Craigieburn, said chemical fires were almost an annual occurrence in the area, referring to previous blazes at Coolaroo and West Footscray in recent years.
“It impacts everybody where people have to stay inside for days on end, kids can’t go to schools – local schools have been closed down – for days, and four fires in three years it’s almost an annual event,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a community meeting on Friday.
Victorian Coroner Darren Bracken attended the site on Friday and will investigate the cause of the blaze.
Premier Daniel Andrews said there were no suspicious circumstances.
John Rutherford has lived in Melbourne’s northern suburbs for more than half a century and on Friday quickly felt the effects of the latest blaze.
“When we woke up (there) is running of the eyes, a tickling of the throat, a feeling of unwellness,” he said.