The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

December 4, 2012

Explosives plant cleanup disrupts Louisiana town

DYLINE, La. — The cleanup of 3,000 tons of explosives haphazardly stored at a munitions plant has frayed the nerves of residents who evacuated, closed the high school and spawned a criminal investigation of the company that owns the materials.

Authorities said about half the town's 800 residents had heeded requests that they leave during the cleanup that started Saturday, but some appeared to be returning to their homes. Some displaced residents were exasperated by the sheer volume of explosive material, which is more than authorities initially estimated. Adding to the uncertainty was a forecast of thunderstorms Tuesday that could slow efforts to move the propellant used in artillery shells to safer storage sites.

"We got outside the evacuation area when they said there was a million pounds. Now it's six million," said Frank Peetz, 71, who was staying with his wife in a camper at a nearby state park. "Maybe we ought to be up in Arkansas somewhere."

State police say some of the propellant was found spilling out of boxes crammed into buildings, and they have opened a criminal investigation into why the materials were not stored in bunkers at the state-owned site, leased by Explo Systems.

Weather could complicate the transfer of the roughly 6 million pounds of propellant. If lightning is spotted within five miles of the site, authorities will suspend efforts to move it, state police spokeswoman Lt. Julie Lewis said. No lightning was expected Monday, but the National Weather Service said there's a 30 percent chance of Thunderstorms on Tuesday.

Lewis said that as of late Monday, crews had segregated or safely stored 1.2 million pounds of the propellant since the cleanup started. The work has slowed because they are indoors moving the material, sometimes through narrow hallways.

State police said the material is stable and would need an ignition source to explode. Lewis said it would take something significant such as lightning or a brush fire — and not static electricity — to ignite it.

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