Just four months after reopening, the Biolab plant in Westlake, Louisiana, experienced a significant chlorine gas leak that caused a visible chlorine vapor cloud to hover over the Lake Charles area.
The incident occurred sometime around 9 a.m. on March 22, and residents were told to immediately shelter in place, close their windows and doors, turn off any air conditioning, and wait for more emergency updates. The shelter-inplace order was lifted around noon that day.
“Apparently it was a transport line that was coming into the plant where they make chlorine to sanitize swimming pools and it’s produced in tablets,” said Greg Langley, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Chlorine gas is used in the process that produces trichlor tabs.
“It was a feeder line that was bringing it in. I believe they located the source right away,” Langley said. “We didn’t get any readings on our air monitoring that were anywhere in the range of being harmful to human health, but it was enough that there was an odor. They shut the line in, which means they cut the feed off at both ends, and they bled it. When it had exhausted the gas that was in the line, the leak was over.”
For those who do not recall, the Lake Charles Biolab facility is the chlorine-producing plant that burned to the ground following Hurricane Laura in August 2020. The incident sent poisonous gas over Westlake and forced residents to shelter in place as crews battled the three-day fire. The plant’s destruction contributed to a major chlorine shortage across the pool and spa industry in the years that followed.
But for the residents of Westlake, the incident at Biolab had (and continues to have) far different ramifications.
In an area containing dozens of chemical plants and refineries, Biolab’s recent leak is just the latest in a long string of chemical mishaps for the area. Residents say they are frustrated by what feels like regular chemical emissions from the plants located everywhere.
Nearby, there’s Westlake Chemical, a major U.S. chemical manufacturer, which bills itself as the second largest chlorine producer in the world. The company has four total plants in the Lake Charles area that in total store billions of pounds of toxic chemicals.
In January 2022, a chemical tank exploded at Westlake Chemical’s Lake Charles South plant, producing a plume of smoke and injuring at least six of the plant’s employees.
Roishetta Ozane, who lives four milesfromtheplant,saystheexperience was terrifying but not surprising.
“The flares, the loud noises, the explosions that shake your home – we’re used to that,” Ozane said.
Just four months earlier, Westlake Petrochemical, 18 miles away, exploded, injuring at least 23 workers, in several cases quite seriously.
In the 2021 Westlake Lake Charles South “risk management plan” — a document required by federal regulators that spells out worstcase scenarios triggered by floods, hurricanes, fires, etc. — the company told regulators that an accident at that one facility alone could spew up to 660,000 pounds of toxic gas across 25 miles.
Today, the Biolab plant’s recent leak has revealed a gap in the area’s alert system caused by Hurricane Laura. More than half of the 33 alert sirens — part of the Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) system — are not currently working.
Jared Maze, operations manager of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP), said there are 33 CAER sirens in Calcasieu Parish, but only 12 have been operational since Hurricane Laura: nine of which are in Lake Charles.
Maze said there was no audible emergency alert at the time of the BioLab leak because there were no functioning sirens within the vicinity. Insurance assessments have delayed the repair process, but officials are currently working on specifications for new sirens.
Officials say that while residents wait for repairs, they can sign up for text alerts from Calcashout Emergency Services to stay updated. But during the most recent Biolab incident, some residents said they didn’t receive an alert.
Leslie O’Malley is signed up for general emergency alerts and said she did not get an alert on her phone from the parish, but rather from her children’s school that they were sheltering in place. She received the notification at 11:35 a.m. — not long before the shelter-in-place was lifted.
Meanwhile, in an area rich with oil and natural gas, Lake Charles and surrounding vicinity is home to dozens of major chemical plants and refineries.
In fact, the Lake Charles area has more than 40 facilities listed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, a database in which plants self-report hazardous chemical releases in the air, in water, or on land.
The sheer frequency of disasters and the looming potential for something much worse creates a lot of anxiety.
“We don’t see things getting better,” Ozane said. “And these places are huge. When something blows up at them, people around here think everything’s going to blow up.”
They could be right.