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US town evacuated after 2,700 tons of explosives found

Tuesday 4 Dec 2012 7:45 a.m.

Explosives stored at an outdoor location in Louisiana (Reuters/Louisiana State Police)

Explosives stored at an outdoor location in Louisiana (Reuters/Louisiana State Police)

By Janet McConnaughey

Police in the United States have moved thousands of tonnes of explosives that had been haphazardly stashed in warehouses in Louisiana, prompting hundreds to evacuate from harm's way in case any of it exploded.

The transfer of 2,700 metric tonnes of artillery propellant began again at daybreak at Camp Minden, which is in north Louisiana's Webster Parish. It started Saturday. A state police spokesman said the work is suspended at night.

About half the 800 residents in nearby Doyline, about 40 miles south of the Arkansas line, heeded state police warnings to evacuate until the stash could be divided into smaller quantities. Authorities were dividing the explosives into amounts that would be too small to pose a serious threat to the town if it were to ignite; there was enough ammunition to pack dozens of tractor-trailers.

The material was stored on property leased by Explo Systems, which became the subject of a criminal investigation following an explosion in October.

Boxes and small barrels of the M6 artillery propellant were found both outdoors and crammed into unauthorised buildings leased by Explo at Camp Minden, a former Army ammunitions plant, state police superintendent Col Mike Edmonson said Sunday.

The company's "careless and reckless disregard made it unsafe for their own employees, for schoolchildren in Doyline, for the town of Doyline," Edmonson said.

The company is located on a portion of the former ammunition plant's 6,000 hectares that is leased for commercial use. Other sections are used for Louisiana National Guard training.

Capt Doug Cain, a state police spokesman, identified the product as M6 propellant, used in howitzers and other artillery. The pellets are largely compressed nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton.

Authorities had initially estimated the total at 450 tonnes after an investigator looking into an October 15 explosion at Explo Systems saw cardboard boxes on long rows of pallets behind a building. They found more stacked in sheds and warehouses when crews returned Saturday to begin moving the boxes into bunkers about 3.2 kilometres away on the former munitions site, which covers nearly 60 square kilometres just north of Doyline.

"It wasn't in their storage magazines. They had it hidden on the property, away from the storage magazines where we would expect to find it," Cain said.

Edmonson said "it was stuffed in corners. It was stacked all over."

He said that in two days, crews had moved nearly a million pounds from the tightest-packed buildings into approved containers and onto 27 tractor-trailers to move to storage bunkers. Another 113 tonnes had been moved a safe distance from the bulk of the material.

It won't all have to be moved into bunkers to let people return home - the evacuation could be lifted once the propellant is divided into amounts that won't threaten the town if some ignites, with each area a safe distance from the others, Edmonson said.

Company officials could not be reached Sunday. The owners reportedly are returning Monday from a business trip to South Korea, but the manager has been working with state police from the start, Edmonson said.

Doyline was used to film some scenes for the HBO vampire series "True Blood."

AP

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