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Federal authorities looking into second fire at tear gas plant

Jason Cato
| Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

Federal authorities are investigating a fire at a Mercer County tear gas plant that has been the target of Occupy protests and a cyberattack by a hacker group in recent months.

Combined Systems Inc. sustained its second fire in three months Monday at its plant that produces non-lethal tactical munitions and crowd-control devices -- including tear gas canisters that have turned up in Egypt during deadly clashes between a hardline regime and demonstrators involved in the Arab Spring.

Special Agent Steven Bartholomew, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that agency is taking the lead investigating the fire.

"At this point, the fire is being deemed accidental," he said.

Combined Systems chief executive officer Don Smith and chief operating officer Richard Edge were unavailable for comment.

Bartholomew said the fire probably started during a mixing process and involved an equipment malfunction, and there might have been an explosion before the fire. He said he was unsure what chemicals were being mixed.

Youngstown, Ohio, television station WKBN reported that more than 200 employees left the facility and that the company sent them home for the day while crews from seven fire departments dealt with the fire. It took more than an hour to get the fire under control, the station reported.

The fire did not damage other buildings, and no one was injured.

In November, a fire destroyed a separate production building.

Last week, the international hacker group Anonymous claimed it broke into Combined Systems' computers, shut down its website and stole emails and client lists that the group posted online.

The company's website is down, although it is unclear whether that is because of the cyberattack.

Bill Crowley, spokesman for the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, said the agency is "looking into possible cyber crimes" as part of the attack.

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