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May 6, 1982: Explosion & Fire rocks Riverside

On this day in Duluth in 1982, an explosion at 9:15 a.m. lead to a dangerous blaze at the Alberta Gas Chemicals plant at 110 Spring Street in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood. Alberta Gas made malic acid, colorless, crystalline compound used as a flavoring in foods and beverages. It occurs naturally in wine and in many fruits, including apples, cherries, and tomatoes. The next day the New York Times reported that, “An explosion destroyed three walls of a chemical plant today, raising a black cloud of chemical smoke and fumes. No deaths were reported. When the authorities warned that the chemicals might cause skin irritation and respiratory problems, homes, schools and businesses were cleared in Duluth and nearby Superior, Wis. Most residents returned home within hours.” About 3,500 Duluthians were forced to leave the area. According to Marsh’s Risk Consulting, the approximate loss from the fire amounted to $14 million (nearly $34 million today), making it one of the 100 biggest chemical fires in the world between 1972 and 2001. Marsh reports that, “the explosion occurred in the drying and grinding area of a chemical plant where fumaric [sic] acid was being processed. The ensuing fire spread rapidly through the area, into an adjoining process area and to the 60-foot by 120-foot warehouse, which was destroyed. Apparently, a static spark from an electric motor ignited dust from the powdered acid and caused the explosion.” The plant was rebuilt and is now home to Tate & Lyle Ingredients America, a “global provider of distinctive, high quality ingredients and solutions to the food, beverage and other industries.”

Leonard Robinson and Keith Haglin advance a hose at the Alberta Chemical Plant fire. (Image: Duluth Public Library)