“Cancer Alley” is on fire — where were the watchmen?


It was a terrible week on Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” This narrow strip of the bayou country between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is home to more chemical plants and refineries than just about any area in the world, let alone the United States. Over the decades, these plants have been a source of both jobs and income for a state in desperate need of both.

But as the nickname implies, economic gains have come with a huge trade-offs. Leaks or improper disposal of toxic chemicals have polluted the air that citizens breathe as well as the water that they drink, leaving to unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases. What’s more, these plants rising from the swamps with their bright lights and labyrinth of piping, are prone to serious industrial accidents, leading to the strip’s other nickname: “Bhopal on the Bayou.”

Last week, unfortunately, Louisiana did its darndest to live up to its namesake in India. Two massive accidents lit the humid skies along the Mississippi River, bring death and destruction. The first took place last Thursday morning in the town of Geismar, La., some 20 miles south of Baton Rouge. The explosion sent several workers to a nearby burn unit, and by the weekend two had died:

A scene of “mass hysteria” followed the explosion, with workers scrambling over gates to get out of the plant, contract worker Daniel Cuthbertson told The Associated Press.

“God was with me today because I know when I looked back, I barely made it. I know somebody was hurt. There’s no way everybody escaped that,” Cuthbertson said.

More than 300 workers were evacuated from the plant.

Officials have not indicated what may have caused the explosion at the plant. Williams Co. officials did not respond to press calls Thursday. The company posted a statement on its website saying, “We are currently focused on the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors and the local community who are responding to the situation.”

The website for Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Co. says the Geismar facility makes 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene annually. The chemicals are highly flammable and used in the production of many plastics. State officials said propylene, rather than ethylene, had caught fire in the explosion.

People were just wrapping their arms around the tragedy in Geismar when a second one occurred, the next day:

The explosion at a chemical plant in Donaldsonville, La., that killed an employee was caused by a ruptured nitrogen vessel, an official said. At least seven people were hurt in the blast Friday…The dead man was identified as Ronald “Rocky” Morris, 55, of Belle Rose, La..

Lou Frey, vice president and general manager at the CF Nitrogen Complex, said the vessel that ruptured at about 6:15 p.m., was in a part of the plant that had been shut down for maintenance. There was no fire at the plant.

“We do not know exactly what happened, but we do want to find out what happened,” Frey said. “It’s very important to us, but we don’t have the details.”

The real tragedy is that at least the Geismar explosion might have been avoidable. There were past warnings about hazardous conditions at the plant there, and yet not only were those alarm bells ignored, but it seems regulators went many years without checking the site out. Our allies at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have been all over this part of the story:

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental defense group, cited a New Orleans Times-Picayune report stating that a pipe at Williams Olefins was leaking propylene, a highly flammable chemical, earlier this year. On Thursday Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said the plant had been in the process of making propylene when the explosion occurred.

“Their current pipes are rusty and leaking, now they are exploding, yet they are given permits to expand,” Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said in a statement released over the weekend.

“These companies locate in Louisiana because they don’t have to invest in maintenance. Our state agencies and politicians look the other way while these companies take the money and run. Ordinary people, especially workers, pay the price.”

Indeed. Last year, I had joined with the Bucket Brigade calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and take over the DEQ’s day-to-day responsibilities, because clearly the state agency was not up to the task of protecting the state’s workers or its residents who live near chemical plants.  Another key group with whom I’ve worked closely — the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN — has played a key role in pointing out these governmental fairlures. There are far too many documented cases of regulators from Baton Rouge letting the chemical industry or the oil refineries get away with grossly under-reporting leaks or failing to implement basic, lifesaving repairs. 

What’s alarming is that increasingly — perhaps because of budget cuts, or maybe just old-fashioned indifference — federal regulators are not doing their job, either. In fact, it had been a couple of decades since federal workplace-safety inspectors had some to Geismar

A petrochemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana that exploded on Thursday, killing one person (sic) and injuring 73, has not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the past two decades, according to an analysis by ThinkProgress. The Williams Olefins plant, which produces about 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, according to the company’s website, does not have any recorded inspections for plants producing either substance in OSHA’s database since 1993.

The explosion, fueled by propylene, started at 8:37 a.m. and burned for more than three hours. Three hundred workers were evacuated and residents within a two-mile radius were told by authorities to remain in their homes.

The same plant also had an accident in 2009, according to Reuters. At that time, 60 pounds of flammable mixture was released, causing a fire that did not lead to injuries. Louisiana has experienced at least two other explosions in petrochemical facilities in the last two years: an explosion at the Westlake Chemicals vinyl plant in Geismar that “sent a cloud of toxic vinyl chloride and hydrochloric acid over the town” in 2012 and another at a Multi-Chem Group plan in New Iberia in 2011. Neither resulted in injuries, Reuters reports.

Look, what happened in Louisiana last week is clearly a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Over the last three decades in this country, we’ve increasingly lived under a government that was created to serve the plant owners to maximize their profits, with little if any thought given to either the safety of their workers or the protection of their neighbors from careless leaks and spills of toxic chemicals. As the years of shoddy maintenance and cutting costs add up, the risk to “Cancer Alley” is growing exponentially. It’s time for regulators to start paying attention.

For more information about the Geismar accident, please read: http://www.nola.com/traffic/baton-rouge/index.ssf/2013/06/cause_of_fatal_geismar_plant_e.html

To read a full account of the accident in Donaldsonville, go to: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/06/15/CF-plant-blast-in-Louisiana-blamed-on-ruptured-nitrogen-vessel/UPI-79071371275531/#ixzz2WRDE2CYP

For an in-depth report on the Louisiana chemical-plant explosions from the Los Angeles Times, please read: http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-louisiana-explosion-chemical-plants-20130615,0,7478701.story

To read the Think Progress post about the lack of inspections in Geismar and other chemical plants, please go to:  http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/06/14/2157181/louisiana-chemical-plant-osha/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • What happened in Geismar and Donaldsonville, LA; the lack of State and Federal Regulators to stay on top of inspections is all too common, in the State of Louisiana and in Texas, where the height of industrial accidents are going to continue until we do have a series of domino effects, either in Texas or Louisiana.
    Chemical Security is huge issue that needs to seriously be addressed by both DHS and EPA.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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