Cleanup, probe begin in biodiesel plant blast

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By JB Clark

Daily Journal

UPDATE: Highway 15 is reopened to traffic.

NEW ALBANY – A biodiesel fire that had burned for the better part of two days was finally extinguished late Thursday night.

Meanwhile, the air in the area was deemed safe after residents had been advised to evacuate the day before. New Albany schools, which had been closed Thursday as a precaution, were to reopen today.

Curt Clayton of the Union County Emergency Management Agency said late Thursday the remains of the smoldering JNS Biofuel plant, rocked by a giant explosion on Wednesday, were cooled with water and and a 3 percent foam mixture. Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Brett Carr said that process was repeated until the fire was out around 9 p.m., then crews monitored the site throughout the night, and cleanup is slated to begin today.

A site survey team was sent on foot to the explosion site off Highway 15 early Thursday afternoon. The survey team determined the plant’s methanol had been successfully contained and the fire was mostly fueled by chicken fat, one of the biodiesel ingredients.

The fire began with the explosion around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday that rattled windows for miles around. Fire crews let the blaze burn, and there were two subsequent explosions Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

Clayton said he was glad the site team wasn’t sent in earlier because of those explosions.

The plant produced biofuel made from methanol and chicken fat. Two employees were on duty Wednesday when a fire broke out, and they evacuated the premises prior to the first explosion.

Officials are still trying to determine the cause of the initial explosion.

A stretch of Highway 15 north of Highway 30 remained closed overnight Thursday and should reopen today.

Residents in the area were advised to evacuate Wednesday as crews assessed the possibility of water contamination and tested for hazardous materials, but not everyone packed up. A shelter opened by the American Red Cross had no visitors Wednesday and closed by midnight.

“Unless they come knock and say we have to go, we’ll stick around,” said Randy Whitehorn, who lives on a road that runs parallel with Highway 15, less than a half-mile from the scene. “We had a deputy come tell us it’s a mandatory evacuation.”

D.R. Watson, who lives on the same road as Whitehorn, also decided not to evacuate.

“Got in bed around 7 p.m. (Wednesday) and then a deputy pulled up to tell me I had to evacuate,” Watson said. “I couldn’t get to the door in time and he went to the next house, but I called the sheriff’s office and told them, ‘Tell Jimmy (Edwards) I’m all right but I’m already in bed.”

Sandra Torres of the Red Cross fed volunteers and cleanup crews at a nearby church starting Wednesday morning. She said the Thursday morning explosion rocked the metal building where crews are staging their cleanup efforts.

“Red Cross will stay on scene and provide support as long as needed,” Red Cross spokeswoman Martha Duvall said.

jb.clark@journalinc.com

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Lynn West of the New Albany Gazette contributed to this report.