A fire broke out at the Lonza chemical plant in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday morning, causing damage to the facility but putting no lives at risk, either at the plant, or in town, the Williamsport Sun Gazette reported.
Local residents who witnessed the black smoke and flames erupting from the facility were concerned about their safety. However, officials were quick to ease their fears, explaining that the fire had started at the northeast corner of the facility, in Building 13, which is a non-hazard manufacturing area. According to officials, the thick black smoke came from the roofing materials and not from chemicals burning inside the facility.
Swiss chemicals and biotechnology company Lonza owns several production facilities in the United States, including the one in Pennsylvania and others in New Jersey and Maryland. The Pennsylvania plant manufactures chemical products for a wide range of applications, such as food additives, personal care products, water treatment and industrial cleaners, the company website states.
Eric Smith, platoon chief with Williamsport's bureau of fire, told the Williamsport Sun Gazette that fires at chemical plants can be very dangerous but in this particular case the town had been very lucky. No one was injured even though there were employees working in the plant at the time when the fire broke out. Still, it took firefighters approximately five hours to extinguish the flames. Lonza's own fire brigade also took part in the operation.
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At present, an investigation still continues at the facility. Officials are also estimating the damage caused to property, but stated that railroad boxcars storing chemicals, oil and gas at the facility were completely secure.
Marvin Kuzo, Lonza plant manager, explained that there were no hazardous chemicals whatsoever involved in the fire, despite the fact that all employees were urged to evacuate. Because it was clear that there was no threat to the community, no sirens were turned on to warn the town, he stated.
On Sunday morning, the Lycoming County Department of Public Safety issued a shelter-in-place request, received by the Williamsport Sun Gazette, warning those who lived in the area to stay at home, close the windows and turn off their air-conditioning, but the order was canceled shortly after, the news source said. According to platoon chief Vince Rundio, it was first issued to the media but, before the warning was released to the community, fire fighters evaluated the situation and deemed there was no risk to the public.
In 1995, the facility suffered a chlorine gas leak with much more serious consequences, the Williamsport Sun Gazette recalled. Facility officials managed to stop the leak within 20 minutes, but by that time a toxic cloud had spread over two and a half miles. Numerous local residents sought treatment for burning eyes and skin irritation in relation to the incident.