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Water pouring onto molten magnesium blamed for Oct. 4 explosions at southwest Illinois metals factory
Vol. 25 Fall

Water pouring from a ruptured fire suppression system is being investigated as the cause of repeated explosions on Oct. 4 that rocked an Illinois factory specializing in magnesium products.

The fire and several explosions occurred in a coil reheating furnace at the Magnesium Elektron North America, Inc., facility split between Madison and Venice, IL, an Illinois EPA press release states. It appears that the explosions were caused by a water line rupturing above the furnace allowed water to contact molten magnesium.

An executive with Magnesium Elektron told the St. Louis Dispatch that it is still unclear why the metal inside the furnace overheated, but the blaze melted an overhead pipe that supplied water for the fire suppression system throughout the plant. The massive explosions that resulted shook the plant and surrounding neighborhoods.

"Insurance companies will mandate you have appropriate fire protection in place to protect the infrastructure," company president Chris Barnes told the Post-Dispatch. "Having said that, it's important for us to review the proximity of those fire protection systems and their proximity to ovens that may present a magnesium fire or risk."

Burning magnesium reacts violently to water, producing great heat and a piercing white light. With a flame temperature exceeding 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, magnesium burns hot enough to break water down into its basic components, hydrogen and oxygen. Both of these are flammable and potentially explosive under the right circumstances.

Accepted procedure in a fire emergency is to cover the burning magnesium with sand. Hose steams used to protect exposures must be directed with great care.

No one was hurt in the blaze. Officials have said the fire was quickly contained. Barnes thanked police and fire departments in Madison County for their efforts to fight the fire.

In the course of the emergency a large plume of magnesium oxide particulates was released, the Illinois EPA states. As a result, the agency has asked the Illinois Attorney General’s office to proceed with enforcement action against the company for endangering human health and the environment.

Barnes told the St. Louis Dispatch that the magnesium oxide released during the fire was non-toxic.

Magnesium Elektron has owned the facility since 2003. The company makes magnesium for photoengraving plates, primarily for the printing industry.

The Illinois EPA has requested that the company conduct a thorough investigation to determine the root cause of the incident and submit a detailed report to include findings and preventative measures. In addition, it should implement the recommended preventative measures to prevent a similar incident from recurring.

The Illinois EPA will continue to provide technical and other support, as needed, to the Attorney General.

 
 

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