Explosion at Louisiana Chemical Plant is the Latest in a String of Chemical Accidents

On June 13, an explosion and fire occurred at a petrochemical plant in Geismar, LA (just south of Baton Rouge), killing one person, injuring at least 70, and forcing residents within a two-mile radius of the plant to stay indoors. The Williams Geismar olefins plant explosion was just the latest in a string of chemical accidents, highlighting the risk that hazardous chemicals can pose to workers and communities and the urgent need to shift to safer chemicals.

The Geismar Plant

The Williams Geismar olefins facility is a light-end natural gas liquid cracker, which means it breaks oil and natural gas down into various chemical subcomponents. The plant's website indicates that it produces approximately 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer-grade propylene, chemicals commonly found in petrochemical plants and that are used to make plastics. Both ethylene and propylene are highly flammable chemicals and dangerous explosive hazards. Exposure to both chemicals can cause headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, and unconsciousness.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined, though reportedly only propylene was burning. However, the plant has had two prior accidents in recent years, according to the plant's risk management plan. In September 2012, a fire occurred at the facility when a furnace exploded. The explosion, which involved a flammable mixture of ethane and propane, caused $9 million in property damage. There were no deaths or injuries. The facility's records note that the explosion in 2012 was due to following improper procedures on the furnace.

Prior to that, in 2009, a fire occurred when sixty pounds of a flammable mixture, which also included propylene and ethylene, were released due to a mechanical failure in a cracking furnace. The accident, which occurred at night, did not result in any injuries or deaths but caused $115,000 in property damage. After both incidents, the company said it added new process controls to its equipment and revised its operating procedures.

Dangers of Flammable Chemicals

The petrochemical industry is a risky business. Since 1996, at least 125 of the 1,345 facilities containing either propylene, ethylene, ethane, propane, or butadiene in the EPA's Risk Management Plan (RMP) dataset have reported accidents.

The Dow Chemical Company's Texas Operations in Freeport, TX, alone has had 15 accidents resulting in one death, 19 injuries, and 130 people evacuated. Three accidents at the Flint Hills Resources Port Arthur Chemical plant in Texas, owned by the infamous Koch brothers, have resulted in property damage of over $306 million.

In the last 17 years, at least 27 accidents involving petrochemicals have occurred in southern Louisiana, home to a large number of the country's chemical facilities. The Williams Geismar olefins plant is one of 12 such chemical plants along a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.

Last year alone, 1,270 people died in more than 30,000 chemical spills and accidents, according to government data reported in The New York Times. This year has seen additional high-profile accidents.

  • In April, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, TX, killed 14 people and injured over 200.
  • On May 28, a tractor trailer crashed into a freight train outside of Baltimore. The train, carrying chemicals, set off an explosion that could be heard at least a half-mile away and released a plume of smoke into the air.
  • Just one day after the Geismar explosion, a nitrogen plant just 20 miles north in Donaldsonville, LA, also had an explosion that killed one and injured seven workers.

These accidents have significantly increased public concerns about the handling of dangerous chemicals, particularly at facilities in close proximity to schools, nursing homes, and residential homes.

Increasing the Public's Right to Know

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA requires facilities producing or storing hazardous chemicals to submit a risk management plan describing the company's activities to prevent the accidental release of harmful chemicals and how its management intends to respond to accidents that do occur. These plans are supposed to help local fire, police, and emergency response personnel and inform citizens about chemical hazards in communities. But after recent chemical accidents, questions have been raised about whether companies and regulators are clearly communicating the risks associated with plants containing toxic and flammable chemicals.

Current EPA guidance, issued in 2004, contains a set of best practices for facilities to follow when providing information to the public about risks and emergency plans. The guidance recommends extensive engagement with community residents when facilities are developing or revising their risk management plans. Unfortunately, it appears that most companies fail to follow this guidance.

Increased Public Pressure for Safer Chemicals and Processes

Safer chemicals and processes are often available to companies that want substitutes for dangerous substances. The Center for Effective Government and 50 other environmental, public health and safety, and labor organizations have long advocated that companies be required to switch to safer chemicals and production processes when they are available. It can be done: the Clorox Company announced its replacement of bulk quantities of chlorine gas with safer chemicals in 2009.

An excellent New York Times editorial after the West, TX, explosion called on the EPA to "compel plants to switch their materials and methods by invoking the general duty clause of the Clean Air Act, which calls on them to prevent accidental release of dangerous chemicals and to minimize the consequences of such releases." It went on to note that the "explosion is a reminder that the Obama administration has failed to uphold a promise the president made as a candidate in 2008 to require the industry to switch to safer chemicals and processes wherever feasible."

When the acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responded on June 13, he emphasized the need for a "renewed focus on supporting local responders, further efforts by the federal government to advance additional chemical plant safety measures, and standardizing the best practices of industry leaders."

However, he made no mention of improving communications with the public about the risks to their communities from flammable and toxic chemical plants. The residents of these local communities deserve attention, too.

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