HOUSTON — At least one person was killed and 77 injured Thursday in an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant in the Louisiana town of Geismar, part of a heavily industrial region known as “Cancer Alley.”
“This has been a tragic incident,” Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a briefing near the plant Thursday afternoon. “There will be further investigations afterward to determine what happened and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
He said officials had not released the name of the man who died because they were in the process of notifying his relatives.
As Jindal spoke in the televised briefing, a black plume could be seen flowing from a smokestack behind him at the Williams Olefins plant. The governor repeatedly dismissed the smoke as nonhazardous — just “emergency flaring, mainly a hydrocarbon, not an inhalation hazard.”
“That is what is supposed to be happening — that’s how they are burning off the excess chemicals,” Jindal said, adding that he had conferred with environmental regulators who had “not seen anything of concern.”
Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson agreed, saying the sight was common in the small town, which lies about 10 miles south of Baton Rouge along a curve of the Mississippi River and has a population of about 7,500.
Some environmental advocates said Thursday’s explosion should draw attention to hazards in a region once known as “Bhopal on the bayou," a reference to the deadly 1984 industrial accident in Bhopal, India. The corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is particularly dense with refineries and petrochemical plants.
The surrounding region is the most prone in the nation to toxic oil spills and releases, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
Last year, the EPA region including Louisiana was second in the nation in toxic accident reports.
When the Congressional Research Service last year analyzed risk management plans at facilities containing more than 140 dangerous chemical types — a reporting requirement established in the Clean Air Act — they found the region that includes Louisiana contained the most delinquent facilities. The report found 172 chemical plants were out of compliance, more than half the national total of 336.
“This incident is an example of the type of petrochemical facilities we have along the Mississippi River and the threat they pose to people in those communities,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based nonprofit Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
“It should raise a red flag for everyone ... along this corridor to make sure they put safety first. The lives of the workers have to come before the product and money,” Orr said.
The plant was in the process of expanding and had a spotty record but no major violations, according to Cheryl Nolan, assistant secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Environmental Services. It was in the process of making propylene, an intense, highly flammable chemical, when the explosion occurred, Edmonson said.
The explosion at 8:37 a.m. prompted the evacuation of about 300 workers, Jindal said. About 10 workers were sent to a safe room to start shutting down parts of the plant according to the emergency response plan, he said.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals reported that 77 people were transported to area hospitals — many with burns — and 51 were discharged. Three patients remained in intensive care.
Stacy Lee Persilver of Sorrento, La., posted a photo on her Facebook page of black smoke streaming out of the plant where her son started working Monday. He was welding about 100 feet away and had to jump a fence before fleeing on nearby River Road and finding shelter at an elementary school, Persilver wrote.
“He’s calling me as he was running 4 his life,” she wrote. “The sound of his voice was awful! … I'm so shook up, pray everyone else gets out safe.”
Times staff writer Julie Cart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.