GEISMAR, La. – On a Thursday morning in June, Antionette West was lying on a couch in her trailer here, not far from a row of chemical plants near the Mississippi River, when the house began to shake.
She initially thought there was an explosion at a vinyl chloride plant about a mile away, where an explosion occurred last year.
This time, she saw black smoke coming from another direction.
It was from the Williams Olefins plant, an “ethane cracker.” It’s the same type of plant Shell is considering building in Monaca in Beaver County. It makes ethylene and propylene from natural gas.
Inside the Williams plant, three miles away, men were running for their lives. Two workers died and more than 100 were injured.
Like many plants in this town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the plant is expanding. Geismar sits in the middle of Louisiana’s “chemical corridor,” a 60-mile stretch where roughly a quarter of America’s petrochemicals are processed.
Cheap shale gas has fueled a chemical industry expansion, promising thousands of jobs. “It’s the equivalent of a gold rush,” said Joshua Gray, a carpenter from Baton Rouge who’s come to town to work on some of the plant expansions.
The jobs are plentiful, but they can be dangerous.
Following the fertilizer storage facility explosion that killed 15 in April in Texas, President Obama signed an executive order to improve the oversight of chemical plants. The order created a “Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group” and ordered agencies to share data and more tightly regulate how chemicals are stored and handled.
Kim Nibarger, health and safety specialist for the United Steelworkers, which represents thousands of chemical and refinery workers, said the industry needs better scrutiny.
“You’re talking highly hazardous flammable chemicals,” he said. “Take a coffee can, fill it about half full of gas and put it on your barbecue. That’s not much different than what’s going on in these facilities. It’s a dangerous, dangerous operation and it needs to be watched carefully.”
The explosion at the Williams plant was one of a string of accidents that have brought negative attention to the industry.
Citing an ongoing federal investigation, a spokeswoman for Williams declined to comment for this story. But in a written statement the company said it’s working with investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board.
Williams will reopen the plant and run it in a way that is “safe and reliable … for the benefit of our employees, contractors, the community and customer,” the statement said.
The day after the Geismar explosion, there was a fatal explosion in a plant just across the river, in Donaldsonville, La. The blast at a fertilizer plant owned by CF Industries killed one worker and injured eight others.
A good safety record
Despite high-profile mishaps like the two this summer, the industry’s safety rate is better than many others.
Chemical manufacturing results in a death rate of 1.7 fatalities per 100,000 workers, according to OSHA records. That’s lower than the nationwide average of 3.2 for all sectors and a much lower number than jobs such as mining, forestry, or agriculture.
But the dangers aren’t always apparent in the numbers, said Nibarger of the United Steelworkers. He said some smaller mishaps – or those which hurt contractors who don’t work for the company – aren’t always reported or aren’t reflected in federal statistics.
Nibarger thinks a cracker plant in Western Pennsylvania would have a leg up on safety over older plants, simply by virtue of its age.
“I would say in defense of the ethane plant, a plus for it, is it would be new,” he said. “You’re using new material, you would expect state-of-the-art safety equipment in a facility like that.”
Chemical plants typically require workers, even contractors, to pass drug tests and basic safety tests to be considered for employment.
Shell, like many chemical companies, is a member of the American Chemistry Council.
The council says the industry is getting safer and points out that its members have had a precipitous drop in accidents – 58 percent – since the mid-1990s. The chemistry council’s Scott Jensen says his group establishes guidelines for companies to follow, including commitments to training and information sharing within a facility.
“In the public’s mind there is a renewed focus on (chemical) safety,” said Jensen. “For our industry, that focus has always been there. We are always staying very focused on safety and improving safety, especially now that we are going through this growth period.”
But Nibarger said the problem with chemical plants is that even if accidents are few, when one happens, it’s big. It can not only harm or kill workers, but also affect a surrounding community as well.
“Process safety failures have allowed numerous fires and explosions,” he said. “We’ve just been lucky we haven’t had more fatalities.”
In Geismar, local boosters of the industry say the safety record of the chemical industry is, on the whole, very good.
“The ultimate responsibility lies with the companies, and the companies we deal with want to do the right thing. They live here, too,” said Mike Eades, director of Ascension Economic Development Corp., a local economic development group. “Their employees live here.”
A half-mile wide buffer in Geismar separates chemical plants along the river from nearby communities. But that doesn’t necessarily keep hazardous air pollutants from wafting into surrounding neighborhoods after an explosion.
West said she doesn’t know what was in the air during the explosion. Television news video showed plumes of black smoke pouring into the sky from the Williams plant.
The company reported releasing 31,000 pounds of chemicals in the blast, mostly propylene, a volatile organic compound that can burn the eyes and skin. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality reported that monitoring the day of the blast revealed no unsafe levels of chemicals in the air near the plant.
West’s neighbor, LeRoyal Ealy, works as an electrician in the plants. He wasn’t worried about pollution from the explosion.
“I was worried about people in there,” he said.
Ealy said he was once inside a plant when an emergency alarm sounded. “And everyone went running.”
Ealy’s wife, Elaine Claiborne, said she worries what the explosion released into the air.
“It might not hurt us now, but what about later on?” she said.
Ealy said worries about pollution or explosions are just part of the bargain here.
“The plants – that’s where the money’s at,” he said. “It’s good to have them, but there’s a risk in everything.”
‘You do what you got to do’
The chemical plants play a central role in the U.S. economy. And that role is expanding, along with the number and size of plants.
Last year alone, $3.6 billion in new chemical-plant projects were announced in Ascension Parish, said Eades.
A steel mill, a fertilizer plant, and a company that will make biofuel out of chicken fat are all expanding to take advantage of cheap gas, both as a fuel to power furnaces and as a raw material.
One of the biggest projects to use natural gas belongs to Methanex, the world’s largest producer of methanol, a basic chemical made out of natural gas.
The company is dismantling a pair of plants in Chile and moving them to Louisiana.
The activity is bringing a rush of workers to the area, like Joshua Gray, a 38-year-old carpenter from Baton Rouge.
“The economic part of it is outstanding,” he said. “There’s no reason to leave here.
Like a lot of construction workers, Gray has had to scramble to find a place to stay in the area. Most recently, he was staying in his RV in a county fairground. “I say there’s 500 camper-trailers up there,” he said. “Guys driving big trucks. They’re all making money.”
He’d been able to secure a job for his friend, Josh Gibbons. A week before he came to Geismar, Gibbons, 18, was delivering pizzas in Baton Rouge. Now he’s working as a carpenter’s apprentice building concrete forms to support the huge cooling towers and chemical tanks that will sit there one day.
“I’m there for learning really,” Gibbons said.
Ironically, Gray said he thinks the chemical expansion could be bad for the environment, and he’s not really in favor of it.
“But when you need a job,” he said, “you do what you got to do.”
Reid R. Frazier is a reporter with The Allegheny Front, a radio program covering the environment in Pennsylvania. Find more stories at alleghenyfront.org. This work was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.