Explosions 6/15/13

Donaldsonville explosion: With Southern industrial boom come dangers
Donaldsonville explosion: Chemical plants are safe overall, but where industries are packed closely together, such as in Texas and Louisiana, worries simmer over looming accidents such as the back-to-back explosions in Donaldsonville and Geismar this week.

By Patrik Jonsson, Staff writer / June 15, 2013

Workers board a bus in Gonzalez, La., on Thursday to return to a chemical plant to retrieve their cars after an explosion occurred there. The explosion ignited a blaze that killed one person and injured dozens of others, authorities said. Another explosion hit a Donaldsonville plant late Friday.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Back-to-back explosions at chemical plants only miles apart along the Mississippi River have given pause to those who live in the shadows of America’s dirtiest industries.

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On Thursday, an explosion at a chemical plant in Geismar, La., owned by Williams Cos. Inc. led to two deaths and injuries – some serious – to dozens of others. Then late Friday, another explosion at a chemical plant just a few miles away in Donaldsonville claimed one life and injured eight people after a nitrogen tank exploded during an offload.

“The incident involved the rupture of an inert nitrogen vessel during the off-loading of nitrogen,” a news release from the company, CF Industries, said. “There was no fire or chemical release nor is there any threat or hazard posed to the community.”

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Hundreds of industrial plants, many that either produce or consume poisonous and explosive chemicals, line rivers and bayous throughout the South, but in few places as heavily as around New Orleans and the Mississippi River.

Some 311 chemical manufacturers employing 15,727 people currently exist in the parishes that line the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to its mouth. That number excludes the large numbers of oil refineries and plastics manufacturers in the area.

To be sure, locals welcome jobs that pay an average of more than $40,000 a year. But explosions like the ones that roiled the river this week remind many of the dangers, both to human life and the environment, such jobs bring.

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The explosions this week are “an example of what it’s like to live along a massive petrochemical corridor,” Marylee Orr, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Environmental Action Network, told the Associated Press. “It poses a risk to the workers first and then to the community that lives right along the front line.”

The explosions also highlight a toxic paradox of one of America’s few examples of economic boom as low natural gas prices and welcoming state regulations spur development in areas already dominated by industrial activity.

The Mississippi River’s span between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – where the twin explosions occurred Thursday and Friday – is one example. The other is the petro-corridors hugging the Gulf Coast south of Houston.