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Explosives spill shuts down North Carolina port

Explosive placard

Placards like this are used to mark containers containing potentially explosive materials.

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — The port of Morehead City, N.C., has been closed this morning because of a leak of the explosive PETN. Morehead City Mayor Jerry Jones told CNN about noon today that the leak has been contained.

Chief Petty Officer Mike Hvozda (USCG) said the PETN was released from nine heavy cardboard-sided containers — each with a capacity of about two cubic feet — that were punctured by a forklift while unloading a ship at the port early this morning.

As a result of the leak, officials ordered a voluntary evacuation of downtown Morehead City. They recommended that citizens who chose not to leave stay inside and away from windows. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard established a two-nautical-mile safety zone around the port until the spill is cleaned up.

PETN, Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, is the explosive that recently gained notoriety in the Christmas Day airline bomb plot. Like another notorious explosive, nitroglycerin, PETN is also used as a vasodilator — a drug used to increase blood flow, often to the heart to relieve symptoms of angina.

Fortunately, PETN is not volatile. According to the 2008 edition of the Emergency Response Guidebook, it is typically transported as a crystalline solid containing between 10 and 20 percent PETN.

The substance itself is relatively nontoxic, although it may cause nausea and headaches if swallowed. The primary risk — certainly in this case — is its explosive potential.

In the case of a spill, the Emergency Response Guidebook recommends isolation and an initial evacuation of an area of at least 100 meters (330 feet) radius. If a large spill, which may have been the case in Morehead City, it recommends an initial evacuation of an area of at least 500 meters (one-third mile) in all directions. In the case of fire, the recommendation is an initial evacuation. of an area at least 800 meters (one-half mile) in all directions.

Carteret County Emergency Services Director Jo Ann Smith said the area evacuated extends along the U.S. Highway 70 corridor from 4th Street to the Beaufort Drawbridge. In addition to the port, the area evacuated includes the Dockside Marina & Ships Store, the Morehead City Yacht Basin, and portions of Radio Island. Smith said it did not include nearby Fort Macon State Park.

— David M. Lawrence

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated throughout the day.

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