Explosives plant cleanup disrupts Louisiana town

Boxes and small barrels of an M6 artillery propellant were found both outdoors and crammed into unauthorized buildings leased by Explo Systems Inc. at Camp Minden, about 270 miles northwest of New Orleans.


DOYLINE, La. — The cleanup of 3,000 tons of explosives haphazardly stored at a munitions plant has frayed the nerves of residents who evacuated, closed the high school and spawned a criminal investigation of the company that owns the materials.

Authorities said about half the town's 800 residents had heeded requests that they leave during the cleanup that started Saturday, but some appeared to be trickling back to their homes. Some displaced residents were exasperated by the sheer volume of explosive material, which is more than authorities initially estimated. Adding to the uncertainty was a forecast of thunderstorms Tuesday that could slow efforts to move the propellant used in artillery shells to safer storage sites.

"We got outside the evacuation area when they said there was a million pounds. Now it's six million," said Frank Peetz, 71, who was staying with his wife in a camper among several displaced residents at a nearby state park. "Maybe we ought to be up in Arkansas somewhere."

State police say some of the propellant was found spilling out of boxes crammed into buildings, and they have opened a criminal investigation into why the materials were not stored in bunkers at the state-owned site, leased by Explo Systems.

Weather could complicate the transfer of roughly 6 million pounds of explosives. If lightning is spotted within five miles of the site, authorities will suspend efforts to move the artillery propellant, Lt. Julie Lewis said. No lightning was expected Monday, but thunderstorms were forecast for Tuesday.

Col. Mike Edmondson, commander of Louisiana State Police, said the material is stable and would need an ignition source to explode. The precautions were taken because officials fear that any spark could set off a huge explosion of the material, which they said was stored improperly in a relatively small area.

Edmondson was hesitant to estimate when it would be safe for Doyline residents to return home. He also said state police weren't sure how much damage an explosion of the material could cause, even after consulting with Department of Defense officials.

"Nobody can tell you what 6 million pounds of explosives would do if it went up," Edmondson said in a telephone interview. "And I don't want to find out."

Police have checkpoints on roads leading into Doyline, though residents are allowed to come and go. The evacuation was voluntary, and some residents elected not to leave their homes in the town that has been used to film some scenes for the HBO vampire series "True Blood."

Edmonson said that Explo Systems leases and controls about 400 acres of the 15,000-acre Camp Minden, a former ammunition plant that now is a state-owned industrial site and home to a National Guard training facility. He estimated that the M6 propellant was stored in an area of less than 10 acres.

It was discovered there, stored indoors and outdoors, sometimes in containers that had spilled open, by a trooper following up on an October explosion at the facility.

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

Just outside the evacuation area, Doyline High School teacher Linda Watson stopped Monday to buy chicken strips at D&H Hardware, which has a small kitchen serving fare that also includes burgers.

Watson said she has not evacuated and has no plans to. Like some others around here, she's accustomed to living near an ammunition plant.

"I've been there the whole time. I've lived here all my life and we used to have the ammunition plant," she said.

Her main concern is the school having to tack on days to the end of the year to make up for classes being out during the evacuation. The school was to remain closed Tuesday.

John Finklea, who was working the register at the store his family owns, said business is down because of the evacuation. He said there's too much being made of the situation.

"I understand people get scared," he said, adding that he considered leaving but ultimately chose not to.

Explo has not publicly commented on the investigation. Neither a company executive nor an attorney who represents the company returned calls Monday. Its website says the company has been in existence for seven years and that its management has been "demilitarizing" and recovering explosives and propellant for 15 years.

Authorities had initially estimated the total of M6 stored at the site at 1 million pounds after the first investigator saw cardboard boxes on long rows of pallets behind a building. Police found more stacked in sheds and warehouses when crews returned Saturday to begin moving the boxes into bunkers about two miles away on the former munitions site.

Edmonson 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 250,000 pounds had been moved a safe distance from the bulk of the material. It won't all have to be moved into bunkers before the evacuation is lifted. That could happen once the propellant is divided into amounts that won't threaten the town if some ignites.

Evacuees were allowed to stay for free at Lake Bistineau State Park, but ranger Marc Massom said only a few had shown up by midday. Masson, a Doyline resident who lives outside the evacuation zone, said some stayed at their houses because of fears about looting.

Lewis of the state police said that security was tight throughout the town with help from neighboring agencies and that crime hadn't been a problem.

Peetz, the retiree staying in the camper with his wife, said there should have been more oversight of the munitions storage.

"I'd like to see more state and federal checks on who is there and what the hell they're making," Peetz said.

McGill reported from New Orleans.