By Dennis Seid
NEW ALBANY – The January fire and explosion at JNS Biofuels plant has been ruled an accident by the state fire marshal, although investigators could not pinpoint a specific cause.
The five-page report said the fire likely was caused by a problem with a thermal oil heater or pump used in the distillation process to produce biodiesel. However, investigators couldn’t determine an exact cause for the fire and subsequent explosions because of extensive damage to the area of the blast.
The fire marshal concluded there was no reason to rule the fire anything other than an accident.
JNS Biofuels owner Steve Bolin said after the incident that he intended to rebuild the plant even though his insurance would cover only the cleanup.
The estimated damage to property and contents was $3.5 million.
Bolin, an Arkansas native and former investor of a biodiesel plant there, said in a January interview with the Daily Journal that he had invested “a couple million dollars” in the New Albany plant.
Most of the damaged equipment has been removed from the site, and crews have been seen working there.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality says it has had discussions with JNS, “but they have not applied” for permits to resume production, said spokesman Robbie Wilbur.
“In addition, we would need specifics on the facility to determine what permits would be needed,” he said.
The JNS Biofuels plant in New Albany used chicken fat, soybean oils and other oils to produce B100 biodiesel.
It was equipped to store 8,000 gallons of methanol, 37,000 gallons of glycerin, 46,000 gallons of feedstock oil, 8,000 gallons of sodium methylate and 2,000 gallons of fuel oil.
The Mississippi fire marshal’s report said on the morning of the accident, JNS employee Jimmy Clowers walked out to take a sample from one of the chicken fat container tanks. The biodiesel produced at the plant was derived from chicken fat.
High-temperature thermal oil heaters help in the distillation process. At JNS, the heater sat between two reaction tanks and two chicken fat tanks.
Clowers, according to the report, heard a hissing sound around 5:45 a.m. and saw an orange glow from one of the chicken fat tanks.
While he didn’t see a fire, he told investigators he knew the glow was a fire. He then ran to a trailer where another JNS employee, James Rhodes, was sleeping and woke him up. As they ran, the plant exploded.
Neither man was injured, and no other injuries were reported, even as the subsequent fire spread to the other tanks, and two explosions later followed the initial blast.
MDEQ was not involved in the investigation, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms participated.