Clues Sought in Chemical Plant Blast

Friday, March 23, 2012 @ 04:03 PM gHale

Investigators are still searching for the cause of an explosion and fire Thursday at Westlake Chemical Corp.’s plant in Ascension Parish in Geismar, LA, which knocked out a unit making feedstock for a widely used plastic resin.

It shut roads, closed down a 34-mile section of the Mississippi River and forced some residents and plant workers to shelter indoors for several hours, officials said.

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The fire erupted at 8 a.m. in the Geismar Vinyls Complex while workers were restarting a unit shut down a few days earlier for normal maintenance, said David Hansen, spokesman for Houston-based Westlake Chemical.

No one was injured and the cause of the fire and explosion remains under investigation, said Karen Khonsari, Westlake Chemical’s environmental health and safety manager.

“All persons are accounted for, and the fire is currently under control,” she said during a news conference Thursday morning.

The fire was out by 9:20 a.m., Louisiana State Police reported.

The U.S. Coast Guard shut river traffic from 9:35 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. along a 34-mile stretch near the plant.

The affected unit makes vinyl chloride monomer, the feedstock for polyvinyl chloride, a commonly used ingredient in a variety of household products, including piping.

Hansen said the unit makes about 550 million pounds of VCM annually, while the plant makes 60 million pounds of PVC. He said the entire facility has about 70 to 75 employees and 50 to 60 contractors.

He said the entire plant at Geismar would remain shut down while company officials determine if any other parts suffered damage.

He said the closure would not affect production at any other Westlake plants elsewhere in the nation.

What and how much product released during the explosion and fire remained unclear, as well as whether chemicals were in liquid or gaseous form when they escaped.

Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud still billowed from the plant.

Wiley said as of late Thursday morning, southwesterly winds were blowing the cloud across the Mississippi River toward Ascension’s west bank and away from the parish’s more heavily populated areas to the north in Dutchtown and Gonzales.

“An explosion occurred, and we have, no doubt, off-site impacts,” Wiley said.

A midmorning statement from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) listed four chemicals it said “the plant was releasing” in whole or part: Vinyl chloride monomer, chlorine, hydrochloric acid and hydrochloric acid solution.

But ground-level monitoring conducted after the fire had not picked up traces of the four named chemicals, authorities said, and officials were awaiting results Thursday afternoon from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aerial monitoring aircraft.

DEQ spokeswoman Jean Kelly and Hansen said later they were not certain what chemicals released as authorities and company officials focused on stabilizing the plant and on worker and public safety.

Kelly said DEQ’s statement listed those are the chemicals the plant could have released.

According to Westlake’s material safety data sheets, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified VCM a suspected cancer agent, while the National Toxicology Program listed it as a human carcinogen.

VCM is a colorless gas with a mild, sweet odor at normal temperatures.

Chlorine is a greenish-yellowish gas that may be fatal when inhaled.

Rick Webre, parish homeland security and emergency preparedness director, said shelter-in-place orders issued for a 1-mile radius around the plant.

The order went out at 8:50 a.m. and lifted at 11:10 a.m.

Six public schools in the vicinity of the plant are beyond the 1-mile radius, schools spokesman Johnnie Balfantz said.

But school authorities instituted a modified shelter in place plan for about an hour and 45 minutes, he said. Balfantz said school officials kept students indoors as a precaution, but they did not shut down the ventilation systems.

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