Fire at Louisiana chemical plant following damage from Hurricane Laura

Article by Amanda Doyle

A CHEMICAL plant in Louisiana, US, caught fire after damage from Hurricane Laura caused a chlorine leak.

The hurricane made landfall early on 27 August, with wind speeds of up to 240 km/h recorded. It caused damage to a Biolab facility, owned by parent company KIK Custom Products, near Lake Charles. According to The New York Times, the facility produces pool and spa cleaning products and stores large amounts of chlorine.

The damage from the storm caused a chlorine leak, which generated heat and started burning, Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police Kevin Reeves, told The New York Times. Employees made unsuccessful attempts to put the fire out, and all employees have now been evacuated and are safe. The fire was reported to be stable and “smouldering” as of Thursday evening, according to the Louisiana State Police on Facebook.

The fire caused a large column of smoke and chlorine gas. According to the CDC, chlorine can cause blurred vision, coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, and a burning sensation in the nose, throat, and eyes. The Governor for Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, issued a warning on Twitter for residents to shelter in place, close windows, and turn off air conditioning units.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows that the facility has released 77 t of chlorine into the air over the last ten years. The New York Times reports that more than 1,500 people live within 4.8 km of the site, 30% of whom are minority communities.

Refinery leak

According to S&P Global, six refineries on the coast with a total 2.2m bbl/d capacity closed or reduced production prior to the arrival of the storm. One of these was Motiva Enterprises’ 600,000 bbl/d refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. The refinery reported a loss of containment during its planned shutdown, which caused a spill of six bbl of fuel, according to The Financial Times. The fuel was contained in a concrete ditch. The company reported that the spill occurred because of a leak on the process line but that this has been blocked to prevent further leaks. The loss of containment was in addition to the estimated 3.5 t of volatile organic compounds released from storage tanks during the shutdown, which was reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The refinery sustained minimal damage during the storm and Motiva said it will restart operations as soon as it is safe

Local newspaper Beaumont Enterprise reported that Motiva also released an estimated 22 t of “various chemicals” at its Port Arthur chemical plant, and that Valero and Total released sulfur dioxide and VOCs during their shutdown processes.

Lessons to be learned

The fire at Biolab echoes the Arkema fire that occurred in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey. Emergency responders were exposed to hazardous fumes from burning organic peroxides as they were not aware what was stored at the site.

In November 2019, the EPA rolled back an Obama-era rule designed to improve safety at chemical facilities. The rule was originally due to come into force in 2017. Before being finalised, comments could be submitted on the proposed changes. Commenters on the revised safety rule urged the EPA to keep the Obama-era amendments in place due to “increased accident risks from severe weather”. One comment said that the EPA had failed to heed lessons learned from the Arkema disaster.

However, the EPA said that Arkema did not involve any substances that were regulated by the safety rule. It also said that, having examined data on the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Harvey, that it “find[s] little or no evidence that extreme weather events have, to date, led to incidents that would have been prevented had the new prevention provisions added in 2017 been in place and had compliance been required prior to these events.”

Adrienne Bloch, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice’s Fossil Fuels Program, said: “[Hurricane Laura] already caused a chemical plant fire that's putting tons of toxic pollution into the air. This disaster is compounded by three intersecting crises facing our country: Covid-19, the climate crisis, and environmental and structural racism. Each of these crises disproportionately impacts communities of colour and low-income communities, and exacerbates existing economic and racial inequities. Climate change fuels stronger storms that hit these communities the hardest, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina.

“In the short-term, state and federal officials must provide the resources needed to help people recover from Hurricane Laura, and take swift action to prevent a fossil fuel or chemical disaster. But to truly address these crises, we must rebuild our economy in an equitable way.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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