Local News

More spilled explosives found at Morehead City port

Posted January 13, 2010 12:13 p.m. EST
Updated January 13, 2010 8:59 p.m. EST

— Hazardous materials crews cleaning up a spill of an explosive compound at the state port at Morehead City found more of the same compound leaking Wednesday, officials said.

Nine 50-kilogram drums filled with the explosive PETN were punctured by a forklift early Tuesday as they were being unloaded at the port.

U.S. Coast Guard and State Ports Authority officials said Wednesday afternoon that they had found PETN leaking from drums in shipping containers not involved in Tuesday's accident. Some of the drums were damaged, which likely occurred during shipping, they said.

Also known as pentaerythritol tetranitrate, colorless PETN crystals are the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions. The compound also is used in military devices and blasting caps, as well as in heart medications.

PETN was used in an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight, and it was used by Richard Reid, the notorious "shoe bomber," who tried to blow up a jet in 2001.

The PETN in Morehead City was shipped from Spain, and a private contractor brought it into the port, according to Lt. Robert Jones of the State Ports Authority Police. The Coast Guard approved its importation for commercial purposes, he said.

State Ports Authority officials said Tuesday that they expected the port to reopen by 8 a.m. Wednesday, but the port remained closed all day, and there was no word on when it would reopen.

"We were certainly working toward a timeline, but this is an evolution in progress," Coast Guard Capt. June Ryan said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "We are not going to sacrifice safety because of a timeline or a number that somebody provided."

The Coast Guard has established a 300-yard safety zone around the port during the cleanup.

Morehead City officials canceled a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday evening for people within a half-mile of the port, and they reopened U.S. Highway 70 between 4th Street in Morehead City and the high-rise bridge to Beaufort.

The evacuation and roadblocks turned the Morehead City waterfront into a ghost town for much of Tuesday.

"It is wintertime, and we count every penny that we have," chef and restaurateur Fabian Botta said. "When something like this happens, you have to take the measures, but it also hurts your pocket."

Morehead City Fire Chief Wes Lail on Tuesday called the cleanup effort "tedious work," saying crews had to spend hours separating the damaged drums from the shipping container in which they were brought to port and from undamaged drums of PETN.

Only then, Lail said, could the spill be cleaned up.

"One good thing that comes out of this is experience," Morehead City Mayor Jerry Jones Jr. said Tuesday. "If and when something like this happens in the future, we'll be better prepared for it."

The state port handled 1.9 million tons of cargo in the fiscal year that ended last June, including 118 shiploads and 415 barges.