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Officials trying to trace gas cloud

The State Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) is trying to pinpoint the source of a chemical leak that spewed a hazy blue cloud across the town of Mulberry in Polk County on Sunday night. Mulberry Fire Chief Mitch Carmack said DER investigators and fire officials think the chemical was sulfur dioxide or sulfur trioxide and that it came from either the Royster Phosphate plant or Seminole Phosphate plant, both on the east side of town.

Carmack said DER investigators visited the town Monday and took emissions and operations records from both plants for Sunday evening.

No one was seriously injured, but hundreds of residents complained of sore throats and burning eyes and noses Sunday night as the haze swept west through the town.

Fire and police officials drove through the neighborhoods on the south side of town, warning residents to stay indoors, close windows and turn off air conditioners. The cloud had dissipated by 9 p.m.

"People were really scared," said resident Jan Privett. "They were running in all directions."

Carmack said this was the seventh time in the past two months that residents have reported a strong sulfur smell or noticed a hazy cloud in the town. The incident Sunday night, however, was one of the more serious, he said.

If DER officials are able to pinpoint the source of Sunday's leak, they may be able to levy a fine against the company, Carmack said.

Gary Dahmns, general manager of Royster's plant in Mulberry, said Monday that it would have been impossible for the cloud to have come from the Royster plant because the wind direction was wrong.

"We're confident it was not us, because the cloud was upwind of us," he said.

Seminole officials could not be reached Monday.

_ Staff report