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Blasts, fire at New Mexico biofuels plant spark brief evacuations

(Reuters) - More than 1,000 residents of a rural New Mexico county were briefly ordered to evacuate on Tuesday following a series of explosions and a major fire at a biofuels plant, county officials said.

The evacuation orders were issued after the blasts were reported shortly before 10 a.m. local time, Dona Ana County officials said in a statement, and a temporary shelter was set up at a high school in the New Mexico community of Anthony.

Those orders were lifted several hours later, after firefighters contained the blaze, and residents were being escorted back to their homes as hazardous materials experts inspected the site, officials said in the statement.

The cause of the explosions and fire was under investigation, and hazardous materials specialists were trying to determine if any chemicals were released during the incident.

State transportation officials were bringing in heavy equipment to build an earthen damn that would contain all water on the site.

The Rio Valley Biofuels plant in Anthony, about 20 miles north of El Paso, Texas, was known to have large quantities of methanol, glycerin and sodium methylate as well as vegetable oil, hydrochloric acid and biodiesel fuel, according to the statement.

The county said some 1,200 residents and 350 homes were believed to be within the half-mile evacuation zone. It was not immediately clear how many of those people were forced to leave their homes.

According to its website, Rio Valley Biofuels produces biodiesel using recycled oil from local food processors.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)

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