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US primate research centre evacuated

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A massive explosion at a nearby chemical plant yesterday forced the evacuation of nearly 250 personnel from the New Iberia Research Center, a major primate center that houses 360 chimpanzees and 6500 macaques and other monkeys in southern Louisiana.

No one was hurt in the 3:40 pm explosion at the Multi-Chem Corp. plant, which is 300 metres from the research centre. But it was followed by multiple additional explosions over a period of hours and generated an immense black plume of smoke (pictured) as well as intense heat near the facility. An area within a one-mile radius of the plant was evacuated, and the primates were left untended until authorities allowed a team of a dozen employees to reenter the complex around 10:30 pm.

Closest to the fire were between 800 and 1000 rhesus macaques housed in 42 enclosures on the eastern edge of the 100-acre primate research center. (Pictured in foreground, second photo, courtesy of The Daily Iberian.)

The 43-year-old center, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, conducts studies for government, industry and academic clients. It is part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and is coincidentally featured this week in a Nature article examining US funding for chimpanzee research.

Thomas Rowell, the director of the New Iberia center, said in a telephone interview today that at about 4:30 pm yesterday, after supervising employee evacuations, he drove one-quarter mile towards the macaque enclosures but was stopped by a fence with a locked gate. He climbed the fence and walked, wearing khakis and a polo shirt, for what he estimated was five to eight minutes, towards the macaque enclosures. He felt the heat of the fire, he says, but the wind was blowing smoke north, rather than west toward the primate center.

When he reached the three rows of fourteen cages, called corn cribs, that house the macaques, he was, Rowell says, “overwhelmed with relief. The animals looked good. They were at the bottom of the cages. Some of them were eating. They didn’t appear to be in any distress.”

Rowell said he spent about 15 minutes at the enclosures. “I verified that the animals closest to the incident were fine.”

He added that he was the last employee on site when he was forced to leave the center by university police at about 7 pm. Some other employees had lingered for varying lengths of time before evacuating to a command center at a university facility about 6 kilometres away. “We had people on site at a time when they probably shouldn’t have been on site,” Rowell said.

About 10:30 pm, authorities allowed veterinarian Dana Hasselschwert and a team of about a dozen technicians back into the center to check and feed the animals. They remained until about midnight. Another team was allowed to enter for two hours at 5:30 am today, to feed infant monkeys among other things. Additional checks by teams of 30 employees have followed every four hours.

The first minutes and hours after the explosion were “hairy,” Rowell said. “There was about 45 minutes to two hours which I would almost describe as panic. We couldn’t get to the animals. The heat was so intense. There was a big unknown.”

He said that the center did have an emergency preparedness plan which was executed.

Today, power was out and backup generators were providing electricity for the facility. Authorities and firefighters have decided to let the fire burn itself out before approaching it. There was no indication when other evacuees would be allowed back into the area.

Multi-Chem. Corp is a San Angelo, Texas-based maker of oilfield products and gas well treatments. The primate research center was established in 1968, before the chemical plant located near it, Rowell said.

Tim Backstrom, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality in Baton Rouge, said that the department has been doing continuous monitoring of the air at the perimeter of the site. “The chemicals released involved xylene, methanol and toluene. All of the levels we have taken so far have been very low.”

He added: “As of 8:35 pm yesterday the fire was still burning with occasional eruptions from containers that were exploding. Flames were up to [30 metres] in height.”

Correction: A previous version of this blog incorrectly stated that Multi-Chem is headquartered in Houston, Texas. The company is based in San Angelo, Texas and has a research and development facility in Houston and offices and operations around the world.


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