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Blast at Indiana BP oil refinery causes fire, rattles homes; 1 worker treated at hospital

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WHITING, Ind. - An explosion at BP oil refinery in northwestern Indiana along Lake Michigan rattled nearby homes and sparked a fire that was later extinguished, but it didn't cause any major injuries or halt production at the facility, a company official said Thursday.

The explosion Wednesday night at the Whiting refinery, which is just east of Chicago, was caused by a fire in a compressor on a processing unit, BP America spokesman Scott Dean said. It happened about 9 p.m. and was extinguished by the plant's fire department within a couple of hours.

One employee was taken to a hospital as a precaution, but was later released, Dean said. Refinery operations were "minimally" affected by the fire, he said.

BP notified the state that more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released into the air because of the explosion, according to Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman Dan Goldblatt. He said a report is still being prepared, but that nearby monitors showed sulfur dioxide levels remained well below maximum levels allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Sulphur dioxide is commonly caused by cars, diesel trucks and coal power plants and contributes to acid rain.

A Whiting Fire Department spokesman said the blast could be heard clearly several blocks from the plant. However, when fire commanders called plant officials to see whether assistance was needed, they were told only to stand by.

The explosion follows a malfunction at the refinery in March that the company said spilled up to 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan. Crews spent several days cleaning up oil along the shoreline.

The refinery covers about 1,400 acres along the lake's shoreline.

BP completed work in late 2013 on a $4.2 billion expansion and upgrade of the refinery that will make it a top processor of heavy crude oil extracted from Canada's tar sand deposits.

Wednesday's explosion came on the anniversary of a 1955 blast at the refinery that threw debris onto nearby neighbourhoods, killing a 3-year-old boy as he slept and causing fires that burned for eight days, according to the Whiting Public Library's website.

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