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Fmr. owner of East Texas Ag Supply says limits on hazardous material 'probably needed'

ATHENS, TX (KLTV) - The former owner of East Texas Ag Supply, the facility that caught fire in May, said he thinks limits on hazardous materials are 'probably needed.'

Ken McGee, Sr. founded the company in the mid-1970's. After the May 29 fire, the location he worked at in downtown Athens is a shell of its former state.

"The reason the building and location is there is because of the railroad," McGee said. "It doesn't have much room for the trucks to come in and out."

He sold the company to his son and worked there until his retirement in 1998. McGee said he remembers being told about the May 29 fire and having to inform his son about the fire.

"I was the one who called him about the fire," McGee said. "Ken didn't even know. He had just gotten home and just been there. So he was very, very surprised."

Preliminary findings from the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office were undetermined. All factors to the fire were ruled out except an electrical failure. McGee said he does not believe everything can be ruled out at this point.

"I think they cannot be 100 percent sure that they can eliminate arson, I don't think you ever could." he said. "[Investigators] say it started in that northwest quadrant. I've asked electricians that's worked there, I've asked past employees, I do not remember any electricity going to that platform."

McGee said that platform in the northwest quadrant was a cement dock, and the electricity for the building was in a separate room.

He echoed what Athens leaders said during the incident that the two fires were very different situations.

"The fertilizer is still there, it didn't catch on fire didn't blow up or anything," McGee said. "Man has to do something to it to make it blow up."

Since the May 29 fire, the City of Athens has been working on possible ordinances to limit the amount of hazardous materials allowed to be at facilities inside the city.

"There's a lot of things you have to take into consideration," said city administrator Pam Burton during a June 9 council meeting. "We want to make sure there's no conflict (with existing codes)."

I think it's probably needed," McGee said. "I have no problem with them restricting those things but there's lots of other things that they wont restrict that could cause damage."

He points to gasoline storage in the city being a possible danger and said there have been incidents in the past. McGee hopes whatever action the city takes, it does not harm a vital industry.

"You have to have the industry for employment," McGee said. "We need the blending plants and fertilizer plants to serve the agricultural community."

No timeline has been set for the proposed ordinances. A more detailed report is expected to be released in late June.

McGee said his son is accommodating his customers by getting fertilizer from other sources. A cleanup plan is still awaiting approval by various local, state and federal agencies before that phase can begin. It is still unknown if McGee, Jr. will rebuild in Athens.

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