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EPA investigators find no residual environmental hazards so far after fire at Venice plant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2010 - Field investigators with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency have reported no residual hazards from the explosions and fire Monday night at the Magnesium Elektron plant in Venice, said an agency spokesperson Tuesday afternoon.

Maggie Carson, communication manager for the IEPA, said the agency did not respond to the emergency but is following up to determine if there are any environmental concerns in the aftermath of the fire.

"We have no indications now that there are any residual environmental concerns that might affect the public,'' Carson said.

The plant processes magnesium for photoengraving plates and employs about 100. No injuries have been reported, but some residents of the area were evacuated for a time. A nearby elementary school was closed Tuesday as a precaution.

The plant was the site of a radioactive cleanup that began with an investigation in 1989 and concluded in 2007, according to Tim Runyon of the nuclear safety division of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

The cleanup was performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which was started by the Department of Energy to clean up sites where radioactive materials had been processed during the nation's early atomic energy program.

Runyon said that all radioactive material from the plant site would have been removed during the cleanup and should not be a concern in the aftermath of Monday's explosion. That would include uranium and thorium dust mixed with an oily residue that was found on beams in one of the plant's buildings. The residue was scraped from the rafters, he said.

"I am confident that the cleanup was very well done,'' said Runyon who visited the site during the cleanup process.

Carson said the IEPA was aware of the radioactive cleanup and had already contacted officials at the emergency management agency.

The plant was originally constructed in 1940 by the War Department to build tank turrets, and was purchased by DOW Chemical in 1951 to produce aluminum and magnesium, according to a timeline provided by Runyon. The plant was licensed by the then-Atomic Energy Commission to receive radioactive materials in 1958. The company handled thorium and uranium under missile and aircraft contracts with the defense department. Several aluminum production companies leased the facility until 1986 when it was purchased by the Spectrulite Consortium Inc. Magnesium Elektron bought the facility in 2003, along with other assets of Spectrulite during bankruptcy proceedings.

In recent months, a group of former employees and residents has raised questions about whether the hazardous materials produced at the plant over the decades of its existence are responsible for their health issues, including various forms of cancer. (See coverage in USA Today and the Riverfront Times.)

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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