Inquiry Ongoing in LA Chem Plant Fire

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 @ 01:06 PM gHale

A fire broke out Wednesday at Westlake Chemical Corp.’s vinyls plant in Geismar, LA, inside a refrigeration unit that stores a nonhazardous, but reactive organic chemical used in making PVC.

Investigators are still searching for clues into what started the blaze, which lasted about an hour and caused no injuries. The fire sent out a dark plume of smoke from the polyvinyl chloride facility along LA 30 in Ascension Parish, company and emergency officials said.

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Plant manager Jim Best said the plant’s emergency response team extinguished the fire with a jet of water about 12:20 p.m.

Though Best said the fire did not directly involve any of the plant’s three production units, a PVC unit nearest the storage facility where the fire happened was shutting down as a precaution.

Greg Langley, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said community air monitoring did not detect any emissions into the atmosphere that were at levels harmful to human health. He said DEQ officials received the all clear at 1:40 p.m.

Just over two years ago, the Westlake plant had a more significant blaze when the plant’s vinyl chloride monomer unit caught fire and forced state highways and a 34-mile section of the Mississippi River to close.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations and fines for that blaze, which also had no injuries.

Best said Wednesday’s fire was unrelated to the VCM unit involved in the 2012 fire and was in a different section of the plant than that unit.

State Police Lt. J.B. Slaton said the State Police’s hazardous materials unit responded to the fire and is investigating its cause. OSHA also opened an investigation, said Juan Rodriguez, OSHA spokesman.

Best, who said Westlake is probing the fire’s cause as well, said the blaze burned liquid organic peroxide, used as an additive to initiate the production of PVC. He said the peroxide must remain at cold temperatures to keep it from chemically reacting.

“We don’t know what happened to cause the cooling to fail, or whatever, but that will be part of the investigation as to why that started on fire,” he said.

Best said emergency plant personnel continued to spray water on the peroxide to keep it cool even after they put out the fire. He said when the peroxide starts reacting, it releases heat in an exothermic reaction.

Best said the plant had notified all law enforcement and other state and local agencies and also called 911, when the fire broke out at 11:15 a.m.

Plant employees first noticed the fire, Best said. Local firefighters responded to the fire call, but the blaze was under control when they arrived.

Rick Webre, director of the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the fire produced a lot of smoke.

He said employees at the plant in Geismar were under direction to shelter in place and nearby plants were to implement their own protective measures.

However, Best said later because of the nonhazardous nature of the material that burned, there was no order to shelter in place.

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