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Wisconsin dairy plant fire spills melted butter into canal

PORTAGE, Wisc. — In a very Wisconsin environmental predicament, a dairy plant in Portage went into a meltdown during a Monday night fire that spilled warmed butter into the historic Portage Canal.

Fire crews were dispatched to Associated Milk Producers in Portage, according to the Portage Fire Department.

While first responders found heavy smoke and fire coming from the plant when they arrived, the primary obstacles to fighting the fire were heavy smoke and melted butter.

The fire started in a butter storage room at the plant, the fire department said. The melted sweet cream was beginning to flow through the building as it heated up, slowing down fire crews as they tried to get inside the plant.

After several hours, the fire was extinguished. No injuries were reported, and local agencies are still determining the cause of the fire.

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Portage Fire Chief Troy Haase said although the melted butter had been “99% contained” to the plant, some of the liquid spilled into the nearby Portage Canal, a historic waterway.

The spill was floating on top of the canal in an area about 30 by 20 feet wide, Haase said. The fire department said that a hazmat team dealt with the mess in the canal by using boom absorbents, which are also used to control oil spills.

The AMPI butter mess isn’t nearly as big as the 1991 “butter fire” at the Central Storage & Warehouse Co. in Madison, but it does present similar environmental challenges. Butter spills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can mimic the negative effects of petroleum-based oil spills like bad smells and damaged plants and animals.

The Portage Canal, which was completed in 1876, has been the subject of a decades-long cleanup and restoration project by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In a statement released Thursday, the DNR said that about 20 gallons of butter made it into the canal during the fire and has since been removed, with “minimal” impact to the environment so far. Most of the butter that left the plant traveled to a local wastewater treatment plant, which has been operating normally.

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