A new report points to a chemical explosion in Louisiana this year as a prime example of why the federal government should tighten national safety standards at petrochemical plants.
The January 26 blast that injured six workers at Westlake Corp.’s Lake Charles South complex and forced thousands of students to take refuge in their schools was one of three chemical incidents highlighted in the report, produced by Coming Clean and Environmental Justice. Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.
The two environmental groups are pushing the United States Environmental Protection Agency to adopt proposals to revise the risk management program, which regulates about 12,000 facilities that store large quantities of hazardous chemicals near populated areas. Although the program is expected to prevent disasters, the groups note that an average of 140 harmful chemical accidents occur in the United States each year.
The rules proposed by the EPA “don’t go far enough and be entrusted to facilities (Risk Management Program) with a striking safety record – such as Westlake Chemical South – to voluntarily improve,” said the report, which was released Tuesday.
Westlake declined to comment on this story.
Houston-based company has long track record of chemical spills, fires, explosions, and failed safety inspections at its four large facilities in the Lake Charles area, a Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate review of government documents found in March.
Despite repeated promises to improve safety standards and equipment, two of Westlake’s most dangerous accidents have occurred in the past year. The January blast at Lake Charles South was nearly identical to the one that occurred last September at Westlake Petrochemical, a plant about five miles away. Broken bones, burns and ear damage were among the injuries suffered by at least 23 workers in the September 27 blast.
The Westlake facilities have the potential to produce much larger disasters, which could endanger tens of thousands of people. A hurricane or other disaster could cause Lake Charles South to release enough toxic gas to endanger more than 210,000 people, the company estimates in a “risk management plan” displayed by the newspaper via a request from Freedom. of Information Act.
Last month, the EPA proposed a series of risk management program enhancements that the agency said would offer greater protections to communities near the plants. The new rules would emphasize the need for plants to assess risks from climate change and natural hazards, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. The EPA also plans to improve public access to information on chemical plants, increase emergency preparedness at plants, and require safer technologies and third-party audits in facilities with high accident rates.
But the rules rely too much on voluntary action, according to the two groups, which represent a network of health and environmental justice organizations.
“This approach has failed to prevent many chemical disasters over the past 25 years,” the report said. “If the draft rule is not strengthened, facility workers and neighbors across the country will continue to bear the human, environmental and financial costs of more preventable disasters.”
The report highlights two other chemical plant accidents that occurred within weeks of the Westlake blast. In Passaic, New Jersey, a large fire broke out in a furniture warehouse and spread to the nearby Qualco chemical plant, which contained a large amount of chlorine. About 200 firefighters fought the blaze for three days and prevented the plant’s largest chemical depots from igniting.
The third incident was a fire at a fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which released toxic gases and prompted local officials to demand the evacuation of nearly 7,000 residents.
The report urges the EPA to consider offsite risks to facilities, including fires in nearby buildings, and the expansion of disaster prevention requirements to a wider range of chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, which is was a source of the North Carolina fire and several industrial explosions, including one that killed at least 220 people near a fertilizer warehouse in Lebanon in 2020.
The Westlake explosion in January shook nearby buildings and sent a dark mushroom-shaped cloud over Lake Charles. About 7,000 students in more than a dozen schools in the communities of Westlake and Sulfur have taken refuge to prevent exposure to toxic gas. Five workers sought treatment at a nearby hospital for lung, head, neck and back injuries.
In an agreement with the EPA in June, Westlake agreed to spend $ 110 million to modernize facilities at two of its facilities in the Lake Charles area and one in Calvert City, Kentucky. The EPA said the improvements will significantly reduce air pollution in the Lake Charles area.
The company also agreed to $ 1 million in civil penalties as part of the deal.
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