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Cleanup at explosives plant unnerves town

– 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 returning to their homes.

Adding to the uncertainty was a forecast of thunderstorms today 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 6 million,” said Frank Peetz, 71, who was staying with his wife in a camper 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 the roughly 6 million pounds of propellant. If lightning is spotted within five miles of the site, authorities will suspend efforts to move it, state police spokeswoman Lt. Julie Lewis said.

State police said the material is stable and would need an ignition source to explode. Lewis said it would take something significant such as lightning or a brush fire – and not static electricity – to ignite it.

Col. Mike Edmonson, commander of the Louisiana State Police, said police were not 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,” Edmonson 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.” The evacuation will remain in place at least until today.

Edmonson said 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.

Explo has not publicly commented on the investigation. 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.

Lewis said the cause of the Oct. 15 explosion remained under investigation.

The company isn’t currently allowed to manufacture any explosives but can sell what it has. Authorities are hoping such sales could reduce the amount of the material in the area.

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