'Could’ve been much worse': Plaquemine dodges bullet after chlorine leak

Staff Report

Emergency officials from Iberville Parish government breathed a sigh of relief after a chlorine leak and fire at a Plaquemine chemical facility ended without injuries or residential damages.

A cloud from a chlorine leak and fire at Olin Chemical triggered a shelter in place alert last week in Plaquemine. No injuries were reported.

The fire began just before 9 p.m. April 18 in a compressor that converts gas to liquid, according to Greg Langley, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Olin Chemicals operates units inside the Dow Chemical facility. The concentration of chlorine released was less than 1 part per million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso issued a shelter-in-place. Residents were also asked to turn off air conditioners and close all windows and doors.

The shelter-in-place ended about 12:30 a.m. It lasted approximately 3 ½ hours.

“It could’ve been so much worse,” Ourso said. “Nobody got hurt in the complex and nobody was overcome here in the public.”

A Baton Rouge TV station reported that 23 residents were taken to Ochsner Medical Center near Plaquemine.

None of the residents were hospitalized, according to Iberville Parish Emergency Management Director Clint Moore said.

“They weren’t necessarily hospitalized, and to my knowledge, none were actually admitted,” he said. “They were brought there as precautionary measure.”

The leak occurred in a plant less than one-quarter of a mile from subdivisions in the north Plaquemine area.

The cloud that hovered over the area created an ominous image, but was not as severe as it looked, Moore said.

“It was chlorine, but it wasn’t 100 percent chlorine,” he said. “It was significantly diluted.

“The picture looks bad, but most of that was smoke and fire from the steam, but the exhaust still posed a safety hazard to the community,” Moore said. “It could’ve been so much worse … our hats go off to those guys and girls in the petrochemical industry. They practice and preach safety big time.”

Public cooperation stopped an emergency situation from becoming much more difficult, Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said.

“The people responded great to us moving them around, and I was so proud that my deputies who left their homes to help us – detectives as well as road people,” he said.  It’s a major deal to shut down roads in both directions and working together with West Baton Rouge and State Police was seamless, and due to the amount of chlorine, and the amount of smoke and the steam, it looked far worse than it really was.”

Some residents on social media said they had not received alerts on phone or through their TV providers.

Social media sites for Iberville Parish Government, the Iberville Sheriff’s Office and Dow Chemical posted warnings about the leak.

Alerts went to all landlines and cellphone lines registered through 911, while others said they did not hear the emergency sirens.

“When you turn on the sirens and you have to look at where the sirens you were turning on around the parish and you know the wind directions, you wouldn’t turn on the sirens for somewhere back of White Castle if it’s not needed, for example,” Ourso said.  “So, it was in immediate area where sirens were turned on in the perimeter where the winds were headed south.

“The number of sirens turned on that night were in the affected area, and it’s the people in that vicinity who get the phone alert,” he said. “It is connected to that particular area.”

Residents can register their cellphones to the 911system on the Iberville Parish Government website, Moore said.

“People got rid of landlines and no longer have cable overrides, so it’s incumbent on them to make sure 911 has their number to get in touch with them,” he said.