By Marcelle Dibrell On August 27, 2020, Hurricane Laura destroyed a Louisiana chlorine manufacturing facility, resulting in a nationwide chlorine shortage impacting a wide swath of industries with attendant price spikes that are still being felt today.
It wasn’t the worst chlorine catastrophe in history — no one was killed, injured, or even forced to evacuate.
But the incident cost hundreds of millions of dollars and caused major inconveniences for many, especially the pool and spa industry, which was then experiencing unprecedented recreational pool use and a boom in new pool construction.
Now, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has released the results of their examination of the incident, nearly 1,000 days after the disaster.
The major finding of the board — authorized by the federal Clean Air Act to investigate chemical accidents — was that the Biolab chemical plant, located in Westlake, Louisiana, was woefully unprepared for the extreme winds accompanying the category 4 hurricane, as well as the inferno that resulted when the plant’s chemicals
Smoke from the Bio-Lab Chemical manufacturing plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana filled the skies on August 27, 2020. The fire burned for 2 days and no injuries were reported. were exposed to rainwater.
The report provides a blow-byblow description of the events that occurred at Biolab, beginning days before the hurricane made landfall. Indeed, on August 24, in preparation for the hurricane, Biolab began shutting down operations, working to secure trucks to remove their major product, trichloroisocyanuric acid (trichlor), from their warehouses. The company managed to successfully transport 825,000 pounds of trichlor to their facility in Conyers, Georgia, but two additional scheduled trucks never arrived, leaving approximately 1.1 million pounds on site as the hurricane approached.
At 1 a.m. on August 27, Hurricane Laura made landfall, with maximum winds reaching 150 miles per hour, prompting the National Weather Service to declare Laura the strongest hurricane to strike Southwest Louisiana since it began keeping records in 1851.
Large portions of the roof of Biolab’s Plant 4 — which housed and estimated 100,000 pounds of trichlor — were torn off the building. By 8:30 a.m., rainwater had reached the trichlor, causing a decomposition reaction characterized by a huge fire and massive plume of smoke and toxic chlorine gas that hung over the local community for hours. It’s thought that Biolab had lost electrical power by this point.
At around 9 a.m., two Biolab employees entered the facility to attempt to assess the situation and control the trichlor decomposition. One of the employees tried to turn on a backup generator to energize a large electric water pump. Without this generator, which had been rented during the site’s preparation for Hurricane Laura, there was no way to operate the pump, because there was no electrical power, and Biolab’s own generator wasn’t working and hadn’t worked for some years.
The employee, who was unfamiliar with the rental generator, was unable to start it. Another employee attempted to start to generator without success but was able to manually start a diesel fire pump.
By about 10 a.m., the gas cloud had caused Interstate 10 to be closed, with shelter-in-place orders for the nearby community.
With the single diesel pump pressurizing the fire water system, at 11:40 a.m., employees began to spray water on the Plant 4 building or in the air to “knock down some of the smoke.” A supervisor quickly realized there was inadequate water pressure. The Bio-Lab employees then examined the system piping and discovered a leak in the system at the adjacent Lonza Arch Chemicals (Lonza) facility, to which Bio-Lab provides fire water. The employees successfully stopped the water leak, turned off Lonza’s deluge system, and isolated the area. These actions, however, did not significantly increase the water pressure within Bio-Lab’s fire system. By this time, the fire had worsened and was beyond the capability of the Bio-Lab responding employees.
At approximately 11 a.m., the Lake Charles Fire Department arrived at the Bio-Lab facility. External emergency responders—Specialized Response Solutions (SRS) and Haz Mat Special Services, LLC—also arrived to assist with environmental and hazardous material response. They entered the facility after 12 p.m. wearing personal protective equipment and decided that “copious amounts of water would be necessary to saturate the product” to reduce and/or control the decomposition reaction.
The Fire Department attempted to use its equipment to draft water from the Bio-Lab freshwater reservoir and experienced technical difficulties with priming their pump, delaying their efforts to get water to the fire.
By approximately 3:20 p.m., US Fire Pump was on site and flowing fire water to Plant 4 with its firefighting equipment. Once Haz Mat Special Services demolished a wall and roof, they were able to saturate the trichlor with water, significantly reducing the visible white cloud emanating from the building.
But by 5:30 p.m., another white cloud was observed emerging from an adjacent Biolab warehouse that Hurricane Laura had also damaged. This warehouse stored about 1 million pounds of trichlor along with other raw materials. Incident responders removed a back wall of the building to spray water inside and had the decomposing trichlor considered to be controlled by 7:30 a.m. on August 28, the following morning.
The incident was declared to be over by 2:30 p.m. that day when Interstate 10 reopened after a 28-hour closure and shelter-in-place orders were lifted.
Regarding the disaster, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board seems to take the posture that there is plenty of blame to go around.
First, Biolab’s buildings clearly were not engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds and should have been. Indeed, in 2010, during its own periodic hazard analysis, Biolab recommended the Lake Charles facility to “consider evaluating warehouse roof structure for hurricane conditions; verify warehouse is built to withstand high winds,” but the company did not implement the recommendation.
This was clearly Biolab’s own omission, but it also could have been enforced by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA), which has building safety standards for the management of highly hazardous materials.
Biolab wasn’t required by either OSHA or the U.S. EPA to implement baseline safety procedures required of other businesses because trichlor, though reactive with water, is not considered highly hazardous and therefore is not covered by either agency’s standards.
Thus, the board calls for both the EPA and OSHA to upgrade their regulations to assure similar accidents caused by natural disasters don’t happen or can be quickly addressed.
The report also calls on Louisiana officials, such as the governor and the state legislature, to enact new laws to prevent releases of hazardous materials, including requirements that existing and new chemical manufacturing buildings be built to withstand major hurricane-force winds.
“With powerful storms and other extreme weather occurring more frequently, companies and regulators must take action to prevent weather-related releases of hazardous chemicals that can cause substantial damage to facilities and threaten surrounding communities,” said Board Chair Steve Owens.
Additionally, Biolab did not adhere to various applicable hazardous materials codes, such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code for highhazard industrial occupancies, which requires automatic extinguishing systems. Bio-Lab also did not conform to NFPA 400 Hazardous Materials Code, which requires a fire detection system and an automatic fire sprinkler system. Biolab was not required to adhere to these codes because it was built prior to July 1, 2017.
In summary, the board concluded that Biolab was not prepared for extreme weather, and it should have been. It should have been prepared, the board stated, because it had already experienced a similar disaster during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Biolab failed to implement the updated guidance that was published at that time.