Huge molten glass leak closes Kalama bottle plant

SEATTLE (AP) - A massive leak of molten glass, compared by firefighters to lava from a volcano, has shut down a new technologically advanced bottle factory that was built for the growing Pacific Northwest wine industry.

Firefighters sprayed about 1 million gallons of water in 16 hours to cool and stop the glass from escaping from the bottom of an electric furnace in time to prevent structural damage to the 175,000-square-foot plant at Kalama, about 35 miles north of Portland, Ore.

No injuries were reported following the leak early Sunday and the cause of the leak remained undetermined Tuesday, said Cowlitz Fire District 5 Capt. Terry Sinkler and Lori Lecker, a spokeswoman for Cameron Family Glass Packaging of Washington, Pa.

The leak, discovered after monitoring equipment registered a temperature loss in the area of the rupture, was adjacent to a smaller hole that was found Friday and was patched by the factory staff without firefighter assistance, Lecker said.

"Prior to that, we've had no problems with the melter leaking. It is very surprising to experience a leak of this nature so early in the life of a state-of-the-art melter," she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"All glass furnaces to some extent are custom-designed. This design has been used elsewhere in the world, and was customized in size and structure for our operation," she added.

About 125 tons of glass heated to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, about twice as hot as a typical house fire, escaped into a basement containment area and about 325 tons remained in the 470-ton capacity melter and must eventually be drained, Lecker said.

Construction of the $80 million plant, described by Cameron as the first new glass plant devoted exclusively to wine bottle manufacturing in the U.S. in 30 years, began in June 2007 and was completed in November. It was touted as being environmentally friendly, relying on a hydro-powered electric furnace and using recycled glass.

The plant was in preproduction at the time of the leak and is expected to have about 80 workers when full operations begin at a time to be determined later.

Firefighters were summoned by the plant staff shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday and found molten glass, which Sinkler told The Daily News of Longview "kind of looks like lava," oozing from a growing hole that reached roughly a foot to a foot and a half in diameter and falling onto steel beams, decking and electrical circuits.

Nearly 40 firefighters, including crews from Kelso, Castle Rock and Woodland, managed to cool the superheated mass enough to slow and eventually stop the flow.

Repair crews were waiting for the massive glob of glass to cool further before beginning repairs to electrical and other systems in the basement. Lecker said company officials expect "that a minor repair will fix the issue."

Firefighters initially were concerned for the integrity of steel beams supporting the furnace, because of the intense heat, but those fears proved to be unfounded, Lecker added.

"As far as we know, there's no indication of structural damage at all. The fire department did a really great job," she said.