Chemical fire in hurricane impact area extinguished after 3 days

Firefighting efforts at the chlorine plant were complicated by low water pressure and storm debris


Tristan Baurick
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

WESTLAKE, La. — It took three days to extinguish the fire that released chemical-laced smoke over Lake Charles shortly after the area was hit by Hurricane Laura.

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials said the fire at the BioLab chlorine plant in Westlake, just west of Lake Charles, was finally put out at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, more than 50 hours after it was first reported Thursday morning.

The fire at a chlorine plant that broke out in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura was extinguished after three days, officials said. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The fire at a chlorine plant that broke out in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura was extinguished after three days, officials said. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The fire’s cause remains under investigation. Structural engineers were scheduled to begin inspections on Monday.

Battling the fire was complicated by downed power lines and other storm debris, low water pressure due to damage from the hurricane and the need to secure outfalls at BioLab to ensure water from firefighters didn’t mix with chemicals and produce toxic runoff. The fire was briefly extinguished on Thursday before flaring up again.

A shelter-in-place advisory for the area around BioLab was lifted Friday afternoon. Gov. John Bel Edwards had issued an emergency alert warning residents of Westlake, Moss Bluff and Sulphur to shelter in place, turn off their air conditioning, and close windows and doors to avoid contact with chlorine gas and other harmful emissions. Chlorine gas can cause lung damage; skin, eye, nose, throat irritation and other health problems.

No injuries or illnesses from the fire or chlorine gas have been reported. Much of the area had been evacuated before the hurricane.

According to the DEQ, no harmful levels of chlorine have been detected by air monitoring stations set up a few hours after the fire started Thursday.

The Office of State Fire Marshal had said a large quantity of chlorine gas settled in nearby waterways, possibly contaminating them. Water testing in Bayou Contraband, which runs alongside BioLab, revealed no chlorine pollution, according to the DEQ.

BioLab manufactures pool-cleaning products that release chlorine when added to water. State officials said it appears that some of those products began to react shortly after the storm struck. The chemical reaction is believed to have produced both chlorine gas and heat, which may have led to the fire.

The company was not required to remove potentially harmful chemicals before the hurricane, but proper storage, including moving chemical products off the floor and away from potential flooding, is part of BioLab's "pre-storm checklist," DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said.

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