This is the third story in our 4-part series, The Coming Chemical Boom, funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Oct 31, 2013
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 had been 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 that Shell is considering building in Monaca, Pa., 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.
Following the West, Texas, fertilizer storage facility explosion that killed 15 in April, 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 & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Chemical Safety Board. Williams will re-open 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. A blast at a fertilizer plant owned by CF Industries killed one worker and injured eight others.
Despite high profile mishaps like the two this summer, the industry’s safety rate is better than many others.
Chemical manufacturing results in a relatively low 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 ‘90s. And those numbers include contractor accidents. 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 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.”
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—there’s no reason to leave here,” he said.
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.”
HOST: The fracking boom has led Shell to consider building a large petrochemical plant in Beaver County. In Louisiana, the shale gas boom has already led to renaissance for the state’s large chemical industry. What does a chemical building boom look like? In his latest report from the Gulf Coast, the Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier found jobs fueling the chemical boom in Louisiana are abundant, but they can also be dangerous. It’s the latest in our series, the Coming chemical boom. Here’s Reid.
FRAZIER: On a rainy morning, Mike Eades drives around Geismar Louisiana. It’s about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And it’s in the middle of Louisiana’s ‘chemical corridor’. It’s a 60-mile stretch where roughly a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals are made. Eades points out several construction projects at hulking industrial plants.
Eades is director of the local development corporation. His job is to bring new business to the area.
He pulls over. Workers in the distance are preparing a site for construction.
EADES: “This is about a 225 acre site.”
FRAZIER: The site will house two plants for the company Methanex. Methanex is the world’s largest producer of methanol, a basic chemical made from natural gas.
The total price for the project is over $1 billion. But the price itself isn’t the most eye-popping thing about these new plants.
EADES: “They are just actually just dismantling another plant in Chile and moving it to this area.”
FRAZIER: Eades has been in the business for 30 years. And he’s worked in seven states. In the last year alone, he’s seen about $3.6 billion in new announced projects here.
EADES: “And that’s by far the most that....that I’ve ever experienced in my career, in any location.”
FRAZIER: These projects are all happening because of the fracking boom. It’s made natural gas cheap and abundant. And chemical companies use natural gas as a raw material.
While the boom comes at a good time for the region’s economy, people here also know: these plants can be dangerous.
This fact was driven home one morning in June. Antionette West was lying on her couch in Geismar.
WEST: “The house shook, and I got up and I went to the door—.”
FRAZIER: She thought it was an explosion at a nearby vinyl plant, which caught fire last year. But she couldn’t see any smoke when she looked in that direction. Then she looked behind her trailer.
WEST: “All I seen was black smoke.”
TV REPORTER: “A massive explosion and fire at a chemical plant rocks the Geismar community near Baton Rouge…”
FRAZIER: It was the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar. One worker died in the explosion, another died the next day from his injuries. Over 100 were hurt.
The plant makes ethylene and propylene. It’s the same kind of plant – an ethane cracker -- that Shell Chemical has proposed building in Western Pennsylvania.
Ethylene and propylene are the building blocks of plastic and other chemicals. They’re also highly flammable. The company said a rupture in a heat exchanger caused the explosion.
For West, it was another moment where she wished she didn’t have to live so close to a chemical plant.
WEST: “If I could move today I would move. I’m not going to lie. I would get out of here.”
FRAZIER: But this is the only place she can afford.
The company reported releasing 31,000 pounds of chemicals in the blast, mostly propylene, which can burn the eyes and skin. But the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality -- the state regulator -- reported that its air monitoring taken that day showed no unsafe levels of chemicals in the air near the plant.
LeRoyal Ealy lives two doors down from West. He’s an electrician who’s worked in many of the plants in the area. As his family gets ready for dinner one night, he says he isn’t worried about pollution from the explosion.
EALY: “I didn’t think nothing really seriously would happen to me over here. I was worried about people in there.”
FRAZIER: But his wife, Elaine Claiborne, says she was concerned about what came out of the plant during the blast.
EALY: “It might not affect us right now, but later on in the year? Yeah, I’ve got concerns.”
FRAZIER: Ealy says worries about pollution or explosions are just something you have to live with if you live near a chemical plant. He says, overall, it’s worth it.
EALY: “It’s good to have them, but there’s a risk in everything.”
FRAZIER: Those risks are why the industry needs stronger oversight, says Kim Nibarger. He’s with the United Steelworkers, which represents thousands of chemical and refinery workers.
NIBARGER: “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.”
FRAZIER: The Obama administration is paying closer attention to the issue of chemical safety. In August, the president signed an executive order mandating greater communication and enforcement among federal agencies who oversee chemical plants. He was responding to a fertilizer explosion in April in West, Texas. That blast killed 15.
Despite high-profile explosions, the chemical manufacturing industry is comparatively safe, according to records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The industry has a fatality rate roughly half the national average.
And it’s much much safer than jobs like mining, forestry, or farming.
But Nibarger says those numbers can be deceiving.
NIBARGER: “No, I think the industry is more dangerous than it seems.”
That’s because those injury and fatality rates don’t always include contractors working at the plant. When those are accounted for, he says, those injury numbers are actually higher.
FRAZIER: But an industry trade group says even if contractor injuries are taken into account, the chemical sector is relatively safe and it’s getting safer. The American Chemistry Council says its members have had a precipitous drop in accidents—58 percent—since the 1990s. Scott Jensen of the chemistry council says those numbers include contractors.
JENSEN: “While I think in the public’s mind there is a renewed focus on safety, for our industry, that focus has always been there.”
FRAZIER: Concern over safety issues won’t stop the chemical expansion anytime soon. In Geismar, the plants keep growing, to take advantage of cheap shale gas. And they’re attracting workers, like Joshua Gray.
Gray moved here from Baton Rouge to work as a carpenter. On a recent afternoon, he stopped in a parking lot on his way out of a laundromat.
GRAY: “The economic part of it, is outstanding—there’s no reason to leave here—you’re gonna make some money right here—for the next 10 years. It’s equivalent to a gold rush.”
FRAZIER: Gray was with Josh Gibbons, an 18 year old from Baton Rouge. Last week Gibbons was delivering pizzas. Now he’s working as a carpenter’s apprentice.
GIBBONS: “I’m there for learning—really. I’m there for the money. But it’s not that great at the moment. $14 an hour. Starting. But it’s my first time in the plant.”
GRAY: “You can’t beat it you now he was delivering pizzas a week ago. And now he’s making $140 a day.”
FRAZIER: The irony of all this for Joshua Gray is opposed to the expansion—he thinks the plants are bad for the environment.
GRAY: “I don’t … really in favor of none of it. It’s not good for the environment, it’s really terrible, but when you need a job you do what you got to do.”
FRAZIER: And Gray says he’ll be here, as long as the money keeps coming.
In Geismar, La., I’m Reid Frazier for the Allegheny Front