August 27, 2020 at 2:37 PM EDT
Louisiana chemical fire is at industrial plant that makes chlorine-based products
By Nick Miroff, Steven Mufson and Darryl Fears
Firefighters are battling a dangerous chemical fire in Westlake, La. that sparked after Hurricane Laura slammed into the coastal area, and authorities warn that the smoke could contain chlorine, nitric oxide and other toxins used in industrial and commercial disinfectants and for swimming pool maintenance.
KIK Custom Products confirmed that the fire is burning at a Biolab plant that sits in an industrial park along Interstate 10, which has been closed due to the caustic smoke, which can be extremely dangerous if inhaled.
Westlake, population 4,600, sits next to Lake Charles in coastal Louisiana, which was hit hard by the hurricane as it moved ashore early Thursday morning. The area is home to numerous petrochemical refineries and various chemical plants.
The state Department of Environmental Quality said air quality monitors were stationed near the facility to determine the types of chemicals that are burning. The federal Environmental Protection Agency scrambled an airplane to monitor the situation from the air, said DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley. Firefighters have worked their way into the structure to douse the blaze.
Tom Hoefer, the communications director of Calcasieu Parish’s emergency management office, said he passed directly through the smoke from the chemical fire while surveying hurricane damage on Thursday. Authorities shut down the interstate highway that lines the property and issued a shelter-in-place order for Sulphur, La., warning people to stay inside and close their windows and doors.
Hoefer said the smoke smelled of chlorine. Chlorine gas can be very harmful if inhaled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it has been used at times as a weapon of war.
Isabelle Pierre, general counsel for KIK Custom Products, which owns Biolab, confirmed that the facility is the source of the fire. The facility manufactures trichloroisocyanuric acid, chlorinating granules and other specialty blends for products such as the household cleanser Comet and Clorox pool chlorine.
The company issued a statement Thursday afternoon:
“KIK Custom Products confirmed that, as a result of damage sustained during Hurricane Laura, there is currently a fire at one plant located at the company’s Biolab Lake Charles, LA facility. Our priority is the safety and well-being of the Lake Charles community of which we are a part. We are deploying a specialized team to the site, and we are working with first responders, local authorities, and environmental agencies to contain and mitigate the impact of this incident as quickly as possible. The facility had been evacuated when the hurricane was upgraded to category 4 after following shut-down protocols, and all employees are confirmed to be safe at this time. We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”