By Errol Castens
NEW ALBANY – A 40,000-gallon tank of fuel exploded at the JNS Biodiesel plant just north of New Albany early Wednesday morning, rattling homes and sending a fireball hundreds of feet into the air, followed by a tornado-like column of smoke that could be seen for miles.
No one was injured in the explosion, which occurred around 5:30 a.m. at the plant on Highway 15.
The plant, also known as North Mississippi Biodiesel, produced biodiesel from chicken fat, said plant manager Carl Harland, and employed nine people.
“I was sleeping when the night guy came and beat on the door and got me up and said the plant’s on fire,” said James Rhodes, one of two employees who had been on the site overnight. “I was going to go out and see if I could get a fire extinguisher and put it out, but it was too big. We started up the hill and hadn’t got (more than a few hundred feet) when it blew up.”
The blast was felt at least as far as Ingomar, several miles south of New Albany, and the initial fireball was reportedly seen as far east as Baldwyn. One law enforcement official who asked not to be named said the heat from the blaze in its first few minutes was uncomfortable in his vehicle, across the highway, even though the outside temperature was in the low teens.
Union County Sheriff Jimmy Edwards said insulation from the first exploded tank was found as far as 1.5 miles from the blast, but no injuries or serious damage off-site had been reported anywhere in the area.
Law enforcement and emergency officials closed off State Highway 15 between Sam T. Barkley Drive and County Road 82 and rerouted traffic over County Road 115 (old Highway 15) to the east of the explosion site. Union County Emergency Management Director Curt Clayton said the highway would stay closed at least until Thursday morning, when daylight would provide a better chance to assess the safety of the situation.
New Albany’s schools will be closed today, officials announced Wednesday night.
The fire burned some New Albany Light Gas and Water power lines along Highway 15, leaving Blue Mountain College, Blue Mountain High School, several industrial plants and some 500 residential customers without power for more than five hours. General Manager Bill Mattox said service was restored at about noon.
Shortly after noon, a second blast erupted into an orange fireball several hundred feet across, igniting grassfires across Highway 15. Officials had already decided the safest response was to let the fire burn itself out, even if it took a day or more.
Robbie Wilbur, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said that in addition to biodiesel, the site was equipped to store 8,000 gallons of methanol, 37,000 gallons of glycerine, 46,000 gallons of feedstock oil, 8,000 gallons of sodium methylate and 2,000 gallons of fuel oil.
While the smell of burnt distillate was evident in a downwind neighborhood Wednesday morning, its intensity and duration apparently did not pose a major air hazard.
“MDEQ’s staff on-site are supervising the air monitoring and checking to see nothing (else) leaves the site,” Wilbur said late Wednesday morning. “They’ve checked and so far the site appears to be contained. The sodium methylate and methanol stored should not be an issue.”
Steve Spurlin, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Emergency Response and Removal Branch, said the possible escape of fuel oils and biodiesel into surface waterways was his greatest concern.
“There’s a sodium methylate tank, but as far as we know it wasn’t impacted; it was on the north end,” he said. “If they have runoff issues, we’ll want them to remediate.”
Harland said the plant’s containment system, as best he could tell from the command post more than a half-mile south, was working as it was designed to do.
Shortly after the second large explosion, several smaller pops were heard in the fire. Harland couldn’t help noting the irony as he identified their probable source.
“That’s those seven brand-new fire extinguishers we just bought,” he said.
Many local, state and federal agencies responded to Wednesday’s disaster. They included the Union County Sheriff’s Department, New Albany Police Department, several volunteer fire departments, New Albany Fire Department, Union County Emergency Management, Mississippi Highway Patrol, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Army National Guard 47th Civil Support Group, State Fire Marshal’s Office, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, MDEQ and USEPA, along with private-sector, New Orleans-based U.S. Environmental Services LLC.
JNS Biofuels owner Steve Bolin estimated his loss to be at least $500,000 but said he would rebuild.
“We’ll be right back here.”
Early Wednesday evening, officials decided to recommend a voluntary evacuation of nearby residents, Clayton said. Winds were expected to die down overnight, allowing the smoke from the fire to collect near the ground, so nearby residents were offered the option to stay overnight at the Victory Life Center in New Albany.