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EPA: Factory Explosion in Venice Caused "Significant Environmental Concern"

Categories: Environment
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The red circle shows Magnesium Elektron's facility on the border of Venice and Madison in a residential area.
The residents of Venice, Illinois, claim that the massive factory on the north side of their town, across the river from St. Louis on State Route 3, has been poisoning them for decades. Now, after a massive explosion and fire earlier this month, they may have finally found an ally in the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
 
But while the people of Venice have long believed that the culprit is the Dow Chemical Company -- the former owners of the factory, who briefly used the facility for nuclear weapons and fuel research -- the EPA is taking issue with Magnesium Elektron North America, which has occupied the site since 2003.

Magnesium Elektron produces magnesium alloy, a type of metal that's used in batteries, laptops and cell phones. On October 4 around 10:30 p.m., a batch of metal overheated inside a furnace and caught fire. A sprinkler system doused the blaze with water, but, instead of extinguishing the flames, the water only made matters worse. A chemical reaction with hydrogen gas caused a blast that rocked a nearby residential neighborhood.

The Illinois EPA is now asking the state's Attorney General to file suit against Magnesium Elektron. UPDATE: The Illinois AG has indeed decided to sue the company.

"This was a significant environmental concern," says Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson. "You have a chemical plant exploding with a large fire and a plume that we believe contained chemicals, and there were residents in the area."

The Illinois Attorney General's office has not yet decided whether it will follow through with the EPA's suggestion to sue Magnesium Elektron.  

While the chemicals in question -- tiny bits of particulate and magnesium oxide -- are not fatally toxic, they can be very unpleasant if inhaled. Magnesium oxide can cause metal fume fever, with symptoms that include headache, cough, sweating, nausea, fever, oppression in the chest and leucocytosis (an increase in the number of white blood cells in the blood). Carson says the particulate could also aggravate existing lung and respiratory problems -- illnesses that many Venice residents claim they already have from years of living next to the factory and its smokestacks.

Chris Barnes, president of Magnesium Elektron, tells Daily RFT that he wants to "apologize the to the local community for any disruption this incident has caused," but denied that the explosion caused any serious health risks.

"It was really pretty much surrounded and controlled," Barnes says. "The resulting smoke consisted of steam and magnesium oxide, which is not considered to be toxic. We're evaluating how much, if any, residue -- non-toxic residue -- left the facility."

Barnes also notes that the three employees who were working when the explosion occurred were unharmed. The building itself was damaged, but Barnes was unsure of the total cost of repairs.

Meanwhile, the residents of Venice are still awaiting government soil, air and water testing to determine the extent of previous pollution at the factory and surrounding areas. They are building a case for a class-action lawsuit against Dow Chemical and Spectrulite Consortium, another previous owner of the Venice facility.

Related Content: Meltdown in Venice: Larry Burgan wages an uphill battle to prove he was poisoned by radioactive waste

USA Today Tells the Sad Story of Venice, Illinois


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