Investigators seek cause of chemical blasts in Louisiana

An explosion at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Louisiana, seen here from above, killed two people. On Friday, a day later, an explosion at another Louisiana chemical plant left one worker dead.
An explosion at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Louisiana, seen here from above, killed two people. On Friday, a day later, an explosion at another Louisiana chemical plant left one worker dead.

State and federal investigators in Louisiana are working to uncover what caused fatal blasts at two different chemical plants in the span of two days.

The second explosion took place Friday night at the CF Industries plant in Donaldsonville, a small town along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

As of Saturday afternoon, one person had died in the blast and seven others were injured.

On Thursday, an explosion at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar killed two people and wounded dozens of others. The two facilities are a few miles apart in a region dense with refineries and petrochemical plants, a corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that’s been called “Cancer Alley” and “Bhopal on the bayou,” a reference to the 1984 industrial disaster in Bhopal, India.


The Donaldson incident happened while nitrogen was being offloaded to the plant from an 18-wheeler to a vessel used to distribute the nitrogen to different parts of the plant.

“That vessel is highly pressurized. For whatever reason, that vessel failed” causing the explosion, Trooper Jared Sandifer, a spokesman for the Louisiana State Police, told the Los Angeles Times.

Damage was contained within the plant and had no effect on surrounding areas, Sandifer said Saturday.

CF Industries Holdings Inc., which runs the plant, specializes in the production of nitrogen and phosphorus, two major components of fertilizer.


Lou Frey, vice president and general manager of the Donaldsonville plant’s nitrogen complex, said in a statement that his company was working with investigators to determine what went wrong to cause the explosion.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as state agencies, will look into the incident.

“Our focus is on our No. 1 priority — the health and safety of our employees and the community,” Frey said. “We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our employees.”

Friday’s deadly blast wasn’t the first at the company’s Donaldsonville plant. The Associated Press reported that three workers were killed and nine injured by an explosion and fire at the facility in May 2000.


Later that year, OSHA imposed a fine of nearly $150,000 against CF Industries, AP said. OSHA cited the company for 14 alleged safety and health violations, 12 of which were described by the agency as serious. The company didn’t contest the citations and agreed to pay the penalties.

The back-to-back explosions this week have given some environmental advocates ammunition to criticize what they say is a relaxed attitude by regulatory agencies toward chemical plants.

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.”

Representatives of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality were not immediately available for comment Saturday.


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