Louisiana Chemical Plant Site of Blast, FireJun 13, 2013
The Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geisemar, Louisiana was the site of a fire that led to a massive blast that shot a huge fireball and smoke column into the sky today. The explosion injured 33 people. At least one person has been reported dead.
Authorities ordered people in a two-mile radius to stay indoors, according to Reuters. Lester Kenyon, a spokesman for Ascension Parish said the move was made in part due to the smoke. Also, all roads leading to the plant have been closed, the company announced. "Emergency shut-down valves have been closed. The unit is isolated," parent group Williams Cos. said in a statement. "We are in the process of accounting for all personnel."
The blast occurred at 8:37 this morning and was still burning near noon. The chemical plant is located along the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, which is about 60 miles from New Orleans. Some 600 people were working at the plant at the time of the blast, said state police.
"We did an aerial assessment, and our hazmat (hazardous materials) teams were able to get a broad view of the site. Now they're putting on their bunker gear and going in on foot to the hot zone to do an assessment and determine a plan of action," Louisiana State Police Captain Doug Cain said, according to Reuters. The search for more possible victims continues.
Of the 33 people injured, said Jean Kelly, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, 30 were brought to hospitals by ambulance and three by helicopter, according to Reuters. "It's an active scene. The fire department, the sheriff's office, and hazmat (hazardous materials) team are responding to the explosion at the Williams Olefins plant," Amy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said, according to Reuters. The company’s emergency response team was assisting at the scene, the firm announced.
The Williams Olefins chemical plant produces some 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, according to its website. These elements are used as part of the petrochemical process in plastics manufacture, Reuters explained. "The chemical involved is a flammable, which is good in the sense that it is burning itself off, so there's no impact outside the fence line of the facility," Cain said.
Massive equipment, intense pressure, and high heat, make the petrochemical industry prone to fires and explosions; most are typically brought under control with minimal injury and damage, according to Reuters. Southern Louisiana houses a great deal of the nation’s petrochemical facilities and, at least two other blasts have been blamed on industry in the past two years.
Meanwhile, pressure has been exerted on industry to strengthen safety following a 2005 blast at the Texas City refinery, in which 15 people were killed and 170 were injured, making it among the worst industrial accidents in decades. The recent blast at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, also killed15 people, Reuters noted.
The West, Texas blast sparked concern for communities nationwide over the potential hazards presented by stores of ammonium nitrate. That blast also destroyed a nursing home and two schools, and left a 93-foot wide by 10-food deep crater. Some 200 people were injured and thousands of residents were forced to flee from and evacuate what was left of their homes over safety concerns and the ongoing investigation. At least 50 homes were demolished.