Two area chemical plant explosions kill three, injure dozens of workers

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor
The first chemical plant explosion in Ascension Parish this week occurred at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, June 13. The fire broke out Thursday morning at the plant, which the company's website says puts out about 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene a year.

Investigators are working to determine what caused explosions that killed two people and injured dozens more at two different chemical plants in Ascension Parish this week.

Zachary C, Green, 29, of Hammond and Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant died from injuries they sustained in an explosion and fire Thursday morning at the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geismar.

More than 300 people were evacuated from the plant site, with 73 taken to area hospitals, including eight taken by helicopter.

A second explosion Friday evening at CF Industries in Donaldsonville resulted in fatal injuries to Ronald "Rocky" Morris, Jr., a 34-year employee with that company.

Several other FC Industries employees were also injured in the blast, including Courtney Julien, Melvin Singleton, Jeramy Worsham and Kade Yarbrough. Three contractor employees were also injured, according to a report from the company.

As of Saturday, one CF employee remained in the hospital in stable condition. All others were treated and released.

Lou Frey, vice president and general manager of CF Industries, said his company is working with investigators to determine what caused the explosion.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected and their families," he said in a news release. "Our employees are our greatest asset, and their safety is highest priority."

CF Industries manufactures ammonia and other nitrogen fertilizers at its Donaldsonville facility.

According to published reports, Friday's incident wasn't the first deadly incident at the plant.

Three workers were killed and nine were injured in May of 2000. Later that same year, OSHA imposed a fine of nearly $150,000 against CF Industries citing 14 alleged safety and health violations.

Some environmental groups charge that Louisiana allows chemical plants to operate unchecked, putting workers' lives in danger.

"Our state agencies and politicians look the other way while these companies take the money and run," said Anne Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "Ordinary people, especially workers, pay the price."

According to the Williams Olefins plant website, the facility annually produces approximately 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene. The Olefins team is responsible for the ethane transportation business consisting of approximately 200 miles of pipelines, as well as a refinery-grade propylene splitter.

In a released statement, The Louisiana Bucket Brigade cited a New Orleans Times-Picayune report stating that a pipe at Williams Olefins was leaking propylene, a highly flammable liquid.

Gonzales Weekly Citizen spoke with a representative with Williams Olefins about the reported leak on Monday.

"I'm gathering the facts on the previous leak referenced in news reports," said Tom Droege of Williams Olefins. "I can tell you that Williams Geismar facility has an excellent track record for operations and safety."

Droege said he will provide information on the reported leak as soon as it becomes available.

"We will continue to work with regulators and authorities throughout this process and provide all necessary information to establish what happened on June 13," he said.

Black smoke continued to rise from the Williams Olefins plant during the governor's 1:30 p.m. news conference held June 13 following the incident. The governor addressed reporters gathered at the parking lot of Fred's Truck Stop in St. Gabriel, a location near the plant.

Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters the smoke was coming from controlled flaring used to burn off dangerous chemicals. He said the shelter in place order for residents of St. Gabriel was lifted following safety testing.

"Ascension Parish has lifted the shelter in place order in a two mile radius," he said. "There are four additional plants in the area that have shelter in place orders, including Honeywell, Univer, Innophos and PCS Nitrogen."

State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson said the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will continue to assess the air / water quality on and around the facility and then report any readings of concern to LSP Hazmat Technician Troopers.

Edmonson said an OSHA investigator has begun an in-depth investigation as to the exact nature of the fire at the Williams Olefins facility.

"The entire Department of Public Safety family mourns with all who have been affected by this incident," he said in a news release Friday morning.

Edmonson added: "With that said, I may also say that I could not be prouder of the response from the police, fire and EMS personnel from the region. These types of unfortunate incidents are best managed through partnerships. They exemplify the level of planning and training that occur on an ongoing basis. This was truly a team effort as all of us share the primary goal of protecting the citizens we serve. As the role of our LSP HazMat Technician Troopers' on-site diminishes, we will continue to be engaged and support OSHA and the company as they work to determine the cause of this fatal fire."