December 4, 2020

Chlorine plant bursts into flames after hurricane roars ashore, forcing residents to shelter in place

A fire at a Louisiana chlorine plant erupted with thick, billowing smoke Thursday after Hurricane Laura plowed through part of the country’s petrochemical corridor with storm surges and fierce wind, forcing residents around the plant to shelter in their homes.

The damage came three years to the month after the record rains of Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston’s refineries, storage tanks and chemical plants, unleashing dozens of toxic spills into surrounding communities’ air, land and water. State and federal aircraft were heading into the air over the battered Louisiana coast Thursday, looking for signs of any other industrial damage or releases from Laura.

At Lake Charles, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality workers with hand-held monitors did not immediately detect chlorine releases from the fire at the BioLab plant, agency spokesman Greg Langley said. The plant makes swimming pool chemicals and handled 21900 pounds (9.933 kilograms) of chlorine last year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show.

Authorities ordered people around the plant in the heavily industrialized Lake Charles area to stay in their homes when the blaze was discovered after first light, following the storm. The state Department of Transportation closed Interstate 10 in the area, diverting traffic.

The fire sent black smoke billowing high above an interstate overpass. Officials told people nearby to stay indoors, with windows and doors shut.

State police, firefighters and other emergency workers were responding, and an Environmental Protection Agency plane was monitoring overhead, Langley said.

Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health at George Washington University and a former assistant administrator for toxics at the EPA, called chlorine “dangerous stuff.”

Chlorine is quite damaging to the lungs and “you certainly don’t want to inhale that,” Goldman said.

Goldman said she worried about the advice to close windows and stay indoors. While that makes sense, “if it’s very, very hot that may not be practical advice,” she said.

Storm damage meant crews had difficulty clearing downed utility equipment and trees and other wreckage to reach the plant fire, smoke from which dominated the skyline.

When cleared by aviation officials, state environmental officials will fly over the overall storm area to look for signs of any other industry fires or leaks, Langley said.

“We’ll be doing flyovers, looking for sheen on the water, any little thing we can see — orphan drums, things like that,” Langley said.

Refineries and petrochemical plants also had crews headed out to check for damage by Thursday afternoon, said Jeff Gunnulfsen, senior director of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade group.

Reports of leaks or other industrial problems can take days to emerge after severe weather, because many plants have evacuated and locked down their facilities, and roads and phone lines are iffy.

EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said the agency had been working with other governments and contractors before the storm hit to assess the storm security of 23 Superfund sites in Louisiana and 35 in Texas.