Illinois EPA investigates after fire at plant in Venice

2010-10-06T00:25:00Z 2010-10-21T16:01:20Z Illinois EPA investigates after fire at plant in VeniceBY PATRICK M. O'CONNELL • poconnell@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8126 and KIM BELL • kbell@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8115 stltoday.com

VENICE • Inspectors with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency began an investigation Tuesday to determine if the smoky explosions that rocked a magnesium-processing plant and the surrounding neighborhoods pose any residual dangers to residents or workers.

City officials also are trying to determine whether the fire that followed the blasts Monday night at the Magnesium Elektron plant spewed any hazardous chemicals into the air.

No one was injured in the blasts and blaze, emergency officials and a plant spokeswoman said.

Bernard Long Elementary School in the Madison School District was closed Tuesday as a precaution but will reopen this morning, said Evelyn Kelly, the district's superintendent.

Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols said only one family had to be evacuated. That family, living just east of the plant, included an elderly woman and her grandchildren. One of the children, a 6-year-old, was vomiting.

"I don't know if that was a result of the fumes or not," Echols said.

A team of Illinois EPA inspectors visited the plant and the nearby area for an initial assessment, spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. There were no visible hazards, she said, but the investigation is just beginning.

A white-orange glow lit up the plant as smoke poured into the sky for hours after the 10:30 p.m. blasts. Passers-by stopped along nearby Illinois Route 3 to take photos of the eerie sight until they were moved along by police.

Kim Banovz, the financial officer of Magnesium Elektron, confirmed that no one was hurt and said officials are working to determine what caused the explosion in an industrial-sized oven.

Banovz said she did not know how many employees were working when the blast happened. The company has about 100 employees.

Magnesium Elektron has owned the plant at 1001 College Street since 2003. The company makes magnesium for photoengraving plates, primarily for the printing industry.

Banovz said the fire was quickly contained. She said it did not spread beyond the area of the oven.

"All in all, it was an unfortunate event, but we could not have asked for a better result," Banovz said.

Echols, the mayor, said he was told that fire crews had to wait until the fire's temperature dropped to 1,200 degrees before applying the firefighting agent for chemical fires. Echols said he was told water dripping from pipes contributed to the explosions, since magnesium reacts violently to water.

Just after the blasts, officials discussed evacuating homes near the plant. But those plans were cancelled as the fire subsided and the wind shifted.

The site used to be the home of a Dow chemical plant and Spectrulite Consortium Inc. One worker was killed and several others seriously hurt in a 1996 fire at the facility.

Residents described a powerful blast that rattled homes and nerves. "It shook the house," said Ray Hudson. "I thought the Earth was ending."

Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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