Explosion causes fire at Mississippi biodiesel plant

By Holbrook Mohr
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A voluntary evacuation of about 50 homes near a burning biodiesel facility in north Mississippi was ordered late Wednesday, officials said.

The fire began with an early Wednesday explosion, according to authorities, who said no injuries have been reported and the cause remains under investigation.

The evacuation was ordered after winds began shifting smoke from the blaze and heavy smoke began to accumulate on the ground, said Union County Emergency Management Director Curt Clayton.

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Clayton said a shelter has been set up at Victory Life Center in New Albany for those needing it.

Meanwhile, officials planned to let the fire at North Mississippi Biodiesel near New Albany burn out, a process they said could go into the night.

Two workers escaped without injuries at the time of the explosion near New Albany about 6 a.m., Clayton said. He said there was a second, though smaller, blast Wednesday afternoon.

The explosion and fire shut down a highway, damaged a power substation that knocked out electricity to parts of Tippah County, and caused the evacuation of one home and two industrial businesses, authorities said.

The company makes biodiesel fuel, and that is what is believed to be on fire, Clayton said.

The blaze has died down some, “but it’s still big enough that we’re not sending anybody up there,” Clayton said.

David L. Franks, listed as North Mississippi Biodiesel’s vice president in documents filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, declined to answer any questions when contacted Wednesday by The Associated Press. The company was incorporated in 2005, according to the secretary of state’s records.

Clayton said the company has the appropriate permits and “are as legal as they can be.”

North Mississippi Biodiesel agreed to pay a $1,500 penalty in 2011 for violations that included failing to perform a “stack emission test” within 180 days of initial startup; failing to perform weekly inspections; failing to submit semi-annual reports; and failure to follow all regulatory requirements related to standards of performance for equipment leaks, according to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality documents.

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The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said the environment department had teams in the area Wednesday to test for hazardous materials that may leave the site, but had not detected any so far.

Damage to the substation caused a power outage to the town of Blue Mountain and surrounding areas in Tippah County, including Blue Mountain College. The electricity was restored, MEMA said.

Phil Nanney, executive director of the Union County Development Association, said the business is a “relatively small operation” with about five employees. He said a church daycare center near the plant asked parents to keep their children home Wednesday as a precaution.

“A large plume of smoke could be seen from several miles away,” Nanney said in a telephone interview.

The plant is located in northeast Mississippi, near New Albany, a town of about 8,000 people, on Highway 15, which remained closed to traffic late Wednesday.

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