(Yet) Another PVC Plant Explosion and Fire

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An explosion and raging fire at the Westlake PVC plant rocked Geismar, Louisiana a few weeks ago, sending a billowing cloud of toxic vinyl

Photo of Westlake PVC chemical plant after it exploded and caught on fire, releasing vinyl chloride and other toxic pollutants into the community.

chloride and hydrochloric acid through the community.  The accident forced area residents and plant workers to shelter in place for several hours, shut roads, and even led to the closure of a 45-mile section of the Mississippi River.

The accident took place just one week before the Vinyl Institute was in NYC arguing PVC was perfectly safe. For some reason, they forgot to mention in their testimony that one of their plants had just exploded.

Westlake Vinyls makes 550 million pounds of vinyl chloride monomer and 60 million pounds of PVC a year.  The company reports this is used to make PVC pipe, pipe fittings, vinyl sidings, bottles, flexible and rigid film and sheeting used for packaging, credit cards and wall coverings.

Check out this local TV news report (and see another at the bottom) on the accident:

A Toxic Cocktail of Chlorinated Chemicals

We’ll likely never know exactly what was in that cloud of smoke released into the community, but according to report filed by Westlake Vinyls, the company estimated they released a toxic cocktail of:

  • 2,645 pounds of hydrochloric acid;
  • 632 pounds of chlorine;
  • 239 pounds of vinyl chloride monomer;
  • 29 pounds of 1,2-dichloroethane;
  • 11 pounds of 1,1,2-Trichloroethane;
  • 1 pound of 1,1,2,2-Tetrachloroethane; and a number of other chemicals.

According to a local newspaper:

Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud could be seen still billowing from the plant.”

According to Westlake own reports to the EPA, its plant puts 589,558 people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine. An accident involving this chemical could potentially impact an area up to 25.00 miles downwind of the plant.

A History of Environmental Injustice

Low income and communities of color live downwind of the Westlake PVC plant.  According to census data, 52.83% of people living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color.  445 people that live within 3 miles of the plant are below the poverty level.

This isn’t first time the plant has had an accident in recent years. On July 8 2010, over 900 pounds of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals were released during another accident.

A number of other significant incidents and violations that have taken place at this location over the past twenty years, particularly when it was owned operated by Borden Chemicals and Plastics.  This has been well documented in the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report, From plantations to plants: Report of the Emergency National Commission of Environmental and Economic Justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which found:

“In March 1998, Borden Chemicals and Plastics and the federal government reached a settlement under which Borden would pay a $3.6 million penalty and clean up groundwater pollution at its plant in Geismar. The fine was described by a U.S. Attorney as “the largest ever for hazardous-waste law violations in Louisiana.” The settlement ended a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed Borden failed to investigate and clean up contamination at its site, failed to report toxic spills, and ran an incinerator without the proper license. Borden said in a news release that the penalty is “less than 1 percent of the $800 million judgment sought by the government.”

On December 24, 1997, a 500,000-gallon storage tank at Borden Chemicals & Plastics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana blew off its top “with a detonation heard for miles around, forcing the closure of Louisiana Route 1 and the voluntary evacuation of some neighbors.” Over a year before (August 22, 1996), equipment failure during the restart of Borden’s facility caused 8,000 pounds of “hazardous materials” to be released.”

In addition, Borden was charged in 1994 with shipping over 300, 000 pounds of hazardous waste to South Africa without notifying the US EPA, as required by law.

The Borden-Westlake-Formosa-Explosion Connection

The Westlake plant that exploded used to be operated by Borden.  Borden also used to operate a chemical plant in Illiopolis, IL which was later taken over by Formosa Plastics.  Interestingly, there was also a major chemical explosion and fire at this plant in Illiopolis a few years ago, which acclaimed author Sandra Steingraber has written about.

This explosion sent a plume of toxic smoke for miles around surrounding communities. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.

Did the Westlake Plant Release Deadly Dioxin?

Perhaps even more importantly, we’re very concerned that the fire and explosion sent a plume of toxic dioxin into communities and waterbodies downwind and downstream.  Given that large quantities of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals burned for numerous hours, under uncontrolled conditions, you can bet dioxins and furans were released.

The question is – will EPA and the state DEQ launch an investigation?

Will they sample communities downwind for dioxin contamination?

As we ponder that, here’s another video on the accident: