Blast at Louisiana chemical plant leaves 'at least 30' injured

A large ball of flame and thick column of smoke could be seen coming from the plant

A large explosion and fire tore through a chemical plant in the US state of Louisiana today reportedly leaving at least 30 injured, and authorities ordered people within two miles (3 km) to remain indoors.

The blast hit at 8:37 am local time at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, which sits along the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge and about 60 miles up river from New Orleans.

“Emergency shut-down valves have been closed. The unit is isolated,” parent company Williams Cos said in a statement.

Images on the Times-Picayune news website showed a large ball of flame and a thick column of smoke coming from the plant.

“We are in the process of accounting for all personnel. Injuries have been reported, the number and extent of those injuries is not known at this point,” Williams said.

NBC News reported 25 injuries, citing Paige Hargrove, executive director of the Louisiana Emergency Response Network. The Associated Press said the figure was at least 30, according to an official.

Six burn victims were taken to hospitals by helicopter, WAFB television reported, citing the Iberville Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Corey Gautreaux, captain of City of Gonzales Fire Department, said emergency responders were treating people at the scene. There were no immediate reports of fatalities.

“It's an active scene. The fire department, the sheriff's office and hazmat (hazardous materials) team are responding to the explosion at the Williams Olefins plant,” said Amy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The company's own emergency response crews were also working the scene, Williams said.

Authorities ordered people within a 2-mile (3-km) radius to remain in their homes, in part because of the smoke, said Lester Kenyon, a spokesman for Ascension Parish. Roads leading to the plant were closed, the company said.

The US Coast Guard said traffic on the Mississippi River remained unaffected.

The plant produces approximately 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, according to the Williams website. These are used in the petrochemical process to make plastics.

Williams operates the plant and holds an 83 per cent ownership interest in the Geismar facility, it said.

Shares in Williams Cos. fell as much as 3 percent in early trading after the reports and were down about 1 percent shortly after midday.

With massive equipment operating under intense pressure and high heat, the petrochemical industry is particularly prone to occasional fires and explosions, most of which are quickly brought under control with limited injury or damage.

Southern Louisiana is home to a large share of the country's petrochemical facilities and has seen at least two other blasts in the past two years.

Pressure on the industry to improve safety has increased since a blast at the Texas City refinery killed 15 people in 2005, among the worst such industrial accidents in decades.

A blast last month at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 14 people has also sharpened attention on handling of volatile chemicals.


Video: Amateur footage from the blast