The incident occurred about 5:45 a.m. Wednesday at North Mississippi Biodiesel, also known as JNS Biodiesel, at 823 Hwy. 15 North near the industrial park, when a fire apparently caused the tanks containing flammable liquids to begin to explode. An exact cause was still undetermined Wednesday but Sheriff Jimmy Edwards said investigation into that would really begin Thursday, after the fire and smoke threat had been removed.
Two employees were at the plant when the fire was discovered but managed to escape without injury. People reported hearing and feeling the two major explosions as far away as downtown New Albany and nearly to Myrtle. The burning fuel caused a blaze that sent flames more than 500 feet high and accompanying thick black smoke actually darkened the sky and could be seen from Tupelo as well.
Nearly a dozen agencies responded to the fire but could only watch and wait for the fire to burn itself out. This was partly due to the intense heat, but also because some of the chemicals used in the biodiesel manufacturing process cannot be mixed with water without danger of further explosions. Emergency Management Director Curt Clayton said there was also concern water would spread the fire, and could result in chemical runoff into surrounding areas.
As the fire continued, officials closed the section of Hwy. 15 from the Sam T. Barkley Drive intersection to near Gale’s Crossing at County Road 82. Both Master-Bilt and Steel-Con plants had to be closed as well.
Clayton said they had expected the fire to burn out in several hours based on the estimated amount of fuel stored but it did not, possibly because of the cell structure of the tanks and the way they were situated after the explosion. The fire had died down some later in the morning but strengthened again when another tank exploded shortly after noon, creating a fireball and mushroom cloud. Smaller explosions were heard on into the evening, again possibly due to tanks or cells rupturing with a larger explosion early Thursday, possibly a tank containing chicken fat, Clayton said.
Air monitoring in the area showed no problems, Clayton said, other than the thick smoke, which was a health hazard. That helped prompt the state of emergency that was issued about 5:30 p.m. Clayton said they were concerned that dropping temperatures and decreasing winds would keep smoke close to the ground, rather than being blown up and away as it had earlier.
About 50 households on County Road 115 east of the fire were given a voluntary evacuation order and the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for them at Victory Life Center. Sheriff Edwards said some followed the order while others chose to ride the night out at their homes.
The main fear Wednesday night was that the fire would not extinguish itself before Thursday morning. The weather forecast called for winds to shift to from the north and pick up speed early Thursday. This would move the smoke almost directly toward New Albany. Classes were cancelled at the city high school and elementary school as a precaution but county schools were not expected to be affected. A few other area closings were reported as well.
County garbage collection was also interrupted until the fire could be contained because the garbage trucks are stored at the county’s central maintenance facility across the road from the biodiesel plant.
Sheriff Edwards said he also expected to have to keep part of Hwy. 15 closed and possibly close an even longer section if the smoke continues. He also said Master-Bilt probably would not be able to open Thursday, at least until possibly later in the day. The change in wind could also force officials to relocate their command post south of the plant.
A side effect of the explosion was that about 400 residents in Cotton Plant and Blue Mountain were without power after a line burned in two. Emergency Management supplied generators to help and New Albany Light, Gas and Water had power restored by noon. It was not known whether the fire and explosion damaged the rail line directly behind the plant.
North Mississippi Biodiesel has been in business since 2007 and is listed as employing five. It makes diesel fuel from cottonseed and other materials such as chicken fat.
Robbie Wilbur, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, was quoted in a news report saying the site was equipped to store, in addition to as much as 40,000 gallons of biodiesel, 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 #2 fuel oil.
Wilbur was also reported as saying MDEQ was one of the agencies monitoring the air quality and that the site was contained in terms of direct hazards to the community (other than from the smoke).
The Environmental Protection Agency reports no safety or other violations for the company in the past three years, although it was fined $1,500 in 2011 for an unspecified violation of the Clean Air Act over three quarters.
Agencies responding to the incident include Union County Emergency Management, Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Union County Sheriff’s Department, New Albany Police, North Haven Fire Department, Myrtle Fire Department, New Albany Fire Department, and United States Environmental Services.
“We’re really fortunate that no one was hurt,” Union County Board of Supervisors President Danny Jordan said. Sheriff Edwards agreed, but expressed caution because the danger was not yet over. “No one has been hurt and we want it to stay that way,” he said.