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Explosions, fire reduce Mississippi biodiesel plant to rubble

By Sabina Zawadzki and Robert Gibbons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Explosions and an intense blaze at a biodiesel complex in northern Mississippi reduced it to smoldering rubble on Wednesday, but the two workers at the plant managed to escape unharmed, the plant's manager said.

The first explosion rocked the JNS Biodiesel LCC plant, some three to four miles (five to six km) north of New Albany around 5:30 a.m. CST (1630 ET), authorities said.

The heat from the subsequent blaze was so high that firefighters could not get close enough to battle it, and state and federal environmental officials decided to let the fire burn itself out, Plant Manager Carl Harlin said.

Another blast occurred in the afternoon when a storage tank blew, Harlin said.

"Right now everything is a pile of rubble, and it's just burning. When we first thought the fire was dying down, we still had our office. ... After the second (explosion) everything burned," Harlin told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

The two workers at the plant managed to flee the facility unscathed, according to a statement from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Harlin said all workers at the facility were accounted for.

The plant uses poultry fat as feedstock to produce about 8 million gallons of biofuels a year, making it the smallest of three such plants in the state. The previous owners were North Mississippi Biodiesel Inc.

State Highway Patrol Trooper Ronny Hall told a local television station that the fire may burn as long as two days. Harlin agreed with that assessment.

The explosion knocked out power to the nearby town of Blue Mountain and some areas in neighboring Tippah County, the state Emergency Management Agency said. Electricity was restored by noon CST (1400 ET).

The agency could not say how many people were affected by the power outage. Blue Mountain has 670 residents.

"One home and two industrial businesses near the plant have been evacuated as a precaution," the agency said. "The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has air monitoring teams in the area to test for hazardous materials ...

but have not detected anything at this time."

Harlin, the plant manager, said the plant would be rebuilt.

"My family and I, we moved over here for this," he said. "It's definitely a shock for us but we've already talked. We've already hired a crew to clean everything up and we're going to start over and build another one. We have too much invested in this."

(Additional reporting by Michael Hirtzer in Chicago; Editing by Alden Bentley, Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)

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