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Blaze damages Wah Chang

Workers returned to Wah Chang on their normal schedules today after tanks of a flammable solvent ignited Wednesday night, starting a fire that caused $500,000 to $750,000 worth of damage.

Callers reported seeing an explosion and fire visible from Interstate 5 as hundred-foot plumes of fire jetted skyward and heavy smoke filled the area surrounding the plant.

The fire started around 11:30 p.m. in storage tanks containing MIBK, a solvent used in Wah Chang metals processing. MIBK fires cannot be extinguished with water.

No one was injured.

The Linn-Benton and Eugene Region hazmat teams were called out. Albany Fire Department spokeswoman Wanda Omdahl said the fire was considered a hazardous-materials incident, but nothing harmful was released into the air or water. "Environmentally, everything is fine," she said.

The Albany Fire Department used foam to fight the solvent fire but didn't have enough, so the Salem Fire Department brought more. Firefighters used water to protect the surrounding buildings.

The Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle was notified, and air space up to 2,000 feet altitude was shut down for a radius of three miles from Wah Chang. Nearby railroad tracks were closed as well.

Wah Chang spokesman Jim Denham said methyl isobutyl ketone, or MIBK, is a solvent used in the process in which zirconium is separated from hafnium.

Denham said neighbors of the plant have nothing to be concerned about in regard to the MIBK fire. "It's not particularly toxic or dangerous," he said.

The MIBK is stored in 5,000- to 10,000-gallon tanks surrounded by a 20-foot by 40-foot berm. The damage was almost entirely contained to the storage tanks and the berm, though some nearby equipment and piping was damaged. "The fire department did an excellent job of containing it to that area," Denham said.

The separation process will be shut down for a few days, Denham said. "We're in the process of trying to assess what repairs will be necessary," he said. "We don't anticipate any significant disruption of production or business."

Other processes were scheduled to proceed "pretty close to normal" he said.

Between 50 and 60 firefighters from Albany, Jefferson, Scio, Lebanon, Corvallis and Salem were at the fire. It was declared under control at 1:47 a.m.

Omdahl said the cause won't be determined for at least a day or two. About 100 people were working at the plant when the fire started. Investigators will begin interviews when those workers are back on shift this evening.



Last modified: December 05, 2003