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Asphalt explosion rocks La Crosse

LA CROSSE, Wis. — An explosion Wednesday on the North Side ignited thousands of gallons of an asphalt-diesel mix and raised early concerns of a threat to residents and waterways.

The explosion, felt up to 10 blocks away and heard on the city's south side, was reported just before 7 a.m. at the Midwest Industrial Asphalt storage facility at 701 Sumner St. and blew the lid from a 40-foot storage tank to the north side of the property.

"We've never had an incident like this," said Steve Mathy, president of ALM Holding Co., the parent company of Midwest Industrial Asphalt. "We may never know exactly what happened. It might have been an accumulation of a lot of things."

The now-destroyed 132,000-gallon tank contained just 7,000 gallons of liquid asphalt for patchwork as the end of the road construction season approaches, Mathy said. The mixture was heated to 200 degrees.

Eight employees were working at the time of the explosion. One employee had minor burns.


La Crosse Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland said crews contained the blaze within 90 minutes and eliminated the threat to the public and river.

"It could have been a lot more significant," he said. "There could have been a tank failure. There could have been other tanks exposed."

The affected tank was one of a group of seven, three of them empty. Firefighters immediately began spraying water on the adjacent tanks, one of which contained 15 to 16 feet of the same liquid asphalt product, to prevent the fire from spreading, fire Division Chief Tom Wallerich said.

Firefighters about 7:35 a.m. warned residents within a 10-block radius to stay inside their homes as thick black smoke billowed from the tank.

The department lifted the order about an hour later and residents should not be concerned about smoke exposure, Mathy said.

Worried about the possibility the tank could collapse, employees deployed absorbent material to protect the nearby Black River from possible contamination by the mixture of asphalt and diesel fuel. An environmental cleanup crew on Wednesday removed any contaminated water from the site.

"We had really no spill, as far as any contamination," Mathy said. "Any contamination we had was basically from the fire hoses and the water and the runoff with oil residue."

Midwest Industrial Asphalt provides propane, home heating oil, diesel fuel for agriculture, construction and the trucking industry and gasoline and kerosene for private and commercial use, according to its website. Its employees train alongside emergency responders to handle incidents at the facility, which also has safeguards to contain the release of chemicals, Mathy said.


"Nothing is like the real thing," he said. "As soon as the explosion happened, we called 911, and I believe the fire department had already started responding. The La Crosse Fire Department did a heck of a job."

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