Melted butter spills into Wisconsin canal after dairy plant fire

Jan Shepel

PORTAGE ‒ In a very Wisconsin environmental predicament, a dairy plant in Portage went into a meltdown during a Jan. 2 fire that spilled warmed butter into the historic Portage Canal.

Fire crews battle a fire at an Associated Milk Products, Inc. plant on January 2, 2023 in Portage, Wis. Melted butter spilled into the Portage Canal as a result of the fire, which started in a butter storage room.

As many as ten fire departments were called to help fight a blaze at the Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI) cheese plant in Portage overnight.

The Portage Fire Department was called after heavy smoke and fire were seen coming from the roof of the dairy plant. Local officials reported that the fire was believed to have started in a room where butter was stored and as it melted, it began to flow throughout the plant.

Portage firefighters stretched lines to the entrance but were unable to access the structure due to heat and smoke and had to wait until two other local fire departments (Poynette and Kilbourne) arrived with their aerial apparatus. However, afterwards the fire officials said they had contained and extinguished the blaze before it spread past firewalls and into other parts of the building.

Poynette-Dekorra Fire Department officials said they pumped 2,000 gallons of water per minute onto the fire, and over the hours they fought the fire, over 100,000 gallons were pumped through their “aerial master stream” apparatus onto the blaze. There were reports that some of the building had collapsed where the fire was most severe.

In a Facebook post, Poynette-Dekorra’s Fire Department said that it had responded with six fire fighters on Truck 32 and Poynette Utility 34 reponded with Chief 1 and 3 after Portage sent out a Mutual Aid call. Truck 32 utilized the aerial device.

Portage Fire Chief Troy Hasse said that the butter was the main obstacle to containing the fire. “When we first tried to go up the stairs to that port that collapsed, the butter was running down like three inches thick on the steps so our guys were up to their knees trying to go up the steps and they’re trying to drag the hose line and the hose line got so full of butter they couldn’t hang onto it anymore,” he told NBC 15.

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.

Neighbors told reporters that they could smell butter in the air as fire fighters fought the blaze.

Sarah Schmidt, vice president of marketing at AMPI said no one was injured as all 30 employees who were in the building at the time were immediately evacuated. Buses were brought in to keep those workers as well as fire fighters warm. The fire halted production and shipping operations at the plant.

Emergency medical technicians were on the scene to track fire fighter health but officials said no injuries were reported.

When she spoke to us on January 6, from the co-op’s corporate office in New Ulm, Minnesota, Schmidt said that the cause of the fire had not yet been determined – “but foul play is not suspected.” The co-op does not yet know when the plant will be up and running again, she said.

Fire fighters quickly contained the blaze to the second floor and successfully extinguished it during the night, she said. Crews were on the scene until 3 a.m. on Tuesday (January 3). Fire department officials said butter runoff and heavy smoke slowed access to the structure as they tried to fight the fire.

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.

According to the DNR, most of the butter that left the facility exited via the sanitary sewer and traveled to the wastewater treatment plant where personnel have been clearing butter out of the plant since the incident. That treatment plant has operated effectively without disruption, though some “temporary exceedances are anticipated,” the DNR said.

The agency said that its investigation is ongoing but that “so far, environmental impacts are minimal.” Neighbors of the plant reported seeing butter balls and sheets floating in the cold water of the canal the next day.

Schmidt told us that the fact that the plant is down will have “no impact on member milk flow,” because the facility is a cheese packaging plant. Bulk cheese comes into the plant where it is used to make processed product in slices and loaves for the food service industry. The Portage plant also packages natural shreds for food service customers.

Much had been made in local media of the fact that butter impaired the fire fighters but Schmidt said it was really “milk fat” that was involved – a necessary component that goes into processed cheese.

“A tremendous thank you goes out to the local fire departments and first responders who battled the fire,” Schmidt told us. “We appreciate their professionalism and hard work, as well as that of our employees, under difficult circumstances,” the co-op added in a press release.

The “butter” in the canal made the national news, with segments poking fun at it on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and getting mentioned on The Today Show.

The canal which was mentioned in Portage is a historic one. Portage gets its name from the fact that early river travelers had to “portage” their canoes to get from the Fox River to the Wisconsin River. Locals had the idea in the 1820s to dig a canal to connect the two rivers and eliminate the need for that “portage”. Work was begun in 1838 to dig the canal with shovels and wheelbarrows.

The canal in its current location was dug by hand from 1849 to 1851. The Army Corps of Engineers took over the project and completed it in 1876. It was used by large boats until the early 1900s. Now, its use is mainly for canoe enthusiasts, according to the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce.

AMPI is the largest cheese cooperative based in the United States with 1,400 farmer/members and almost 1,000 employees. In 2020, AMPI marketed 4.7 billion pounds of milk and had $1.7 billion in sales. In addition to the Portage plant, AMPI has seven other plant locations – Blair and Jim Falls, in Wisconsin; Freeman and Hoven, in South Dakota; New Ulm and Paynesville in Minnesota; and Sanborn, Iowa.

USATODAY Network Wisconsin contributed to this story