The BioLab chlorine production facility in Westlake, Louisiana, caught fire hours after Hurricane Laura barreled through the Lake Charles area early Thursday morning. The chemical plant erupted in a massive plume of toxic chlorine gas and other hazardous emissions, prompting the governor’s office to issue a shelter-in-place warning to residents of three communities.
The fire at the sprawling BioLab facility broke out shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday, about seven hours after the Category 4 storm made landfall and tore through the Louisiana/East Texas Gulf Coast. Governor John Bel Edwards issued an emergency alert urging people in Westlake, Moss Bluff, and Sulphur to stay inside, turn off air conditioners, and keep all windows and doors closed.
Chlorine gas can be extremely harmful if inhaled, irreparably damaging the lung tissue and potentially making it very difficult to breathe. The risk of lung damage is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which doctors have found to be especially lethal to people with lung problems.
“As this type of chlorine began to decompose, it generates heat, and it began to burn, releasing chlorine gas into the atmosphere,” said Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Kevin Reeves.
Exposure to chlorine gas can also cause blisters; burn the eyes, nose and throat; and trigger nausea, vomiting and headaches.
Col. Reeves said much of the chlorine was carried into Lake Charles and other nearby bodies of water, according to NOLA.com. Firefighters refrained from extinguishing the blaze for several hours as crews worked to close all of the BioLab plant’s outfalls to prevent water used to extinguish the flames from mixing with the chlorine and other chemicals and flowing to surrounding areas.
BioLab mostly makes chlorine for swimming pools. The Westlake plant can make up to 115 million pounds of trichloroisocyanuric acid and disodium isocyanurate per year. The chemicals are produced in a white powder or granulated form and have a strong chlorine-like smell. When heated, the chemicals can release chlorine fumes and nitrogen oxides.
According to NOLA.com, the BioLab facility is owned by KIK Custom Products of Toronto, Canada, a major producer of bleach products. KIK acquired BioLab in 2013, which expanded its pool and spa treatment business globally.
The BioLab facility “was categorized under federal standards as a major source of hazardous air pollutants. It released 21,900 pounds of chlorine last year, according to the Toxic Release Inventory, an EPA database of companies’ self-reported toxic emissions,” according to NOLA.com. Accidental, uncontrolled releases of chlorine gas have occurred at the plant before, raising safety concerns with plant managers and government regulators alike.
Efforts to extinguish the smoldering chemical fire continued on Friday. The area expects varying degrees of rainfall over the next few days, potentially aiding firefighting efforts.
Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. We often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.