Texas fertilizer plant explosion stokes Donaldsonville fears

Fertilizer Plants
Fertilizer Plants

Keri Hebert no longer lives near the CF Industries Inc. plant, but she can’t forget the 2000 explosion that killed three and injured eight others. Her fear for her mother and twin sister, who live in the St. Jude subdivision, close to CF Industries’ 1,400-acre site, is a constant.

“I’m scared to death,” she admitted, adding her mother has lived in the subdivision for about a decade.

Hebert’s first thought when she heard about the West, Texas, explosion: Don’t let it happen at home. Hebert said she has nightmares sometimes about a deadly explosion at CF Industries.

“I’m sure CF is much bigger than that plant over there, and we wouldn’t stand a chance here,” she said.

Ascension and St. James parishes are home to four fertilizer plants, two of which produce materials similar to that produced at the plant that exploded Wednesday night in West. The blast left at least 12 people dead, injured roughly 200 others, and leveled a four- to five-block area, destroying dozens of homes, a school, a nursing home and an apartment building.

Emergency preparedness officials say an explosion at one of Louisiana’s fertilizer plants could produce similar damage.

“You always have a concern about a major event,” said Eric Deroche, the director of emergency preparedness in St. James Parish. “You always have those fears and concerns.”

“If you have a facility in your jurisdiction that carries that type of material, you look at your infrastructure, schools, residences,” said Rick Webre, the head of emergency preparedness in Ascension Parish.

CF Industries nitrogen plant off La. 3089 is the largest in North America. Like the plant in West, CF Industries’ plant produces ammonium nitrate, commonly used in fertilizer. The PotashCorp nitrogen plant about a dozen miles north on the east bank of the Mississippi River near Iberville Parish produces nitric acid.

St. James Parish is home to Mosaic Co.’s Faustina plant at the foot of the Sunshine Bridge.

The plant makes anhydrous ammonia for use in fertilizers. Mosaic’s Uncle Sam plant, on the opposite side of the river, makes products used in phosphate-based fertilizer. Neither facility makes ammonium nitrate.

Still, all three companies are familiar with danger.

A 2006 explosion at Mosaic’s Faustina plant rattled houses several blocks away, though no one was injured. In 2008, a valve at the PotashCorp plant leaked sulfuric acid, causing plant workers and nearby residents to be sheltered. The 2000 CF Industries explosion resulted in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine of $149,850 and 14 citations for safety and health violations.

Another CF Industries employee was injured in November 1998 when a natural gas-fired auxiliary boiler exploded.

While the PotashCorp facility is located in an industrial corridor surrounded by other chemical plants along River Road on the parish’s east bank, CF Industries and Mosaic Faustina are in a heavily trafficked area on the west bank near businesses, hotels and residences.

Residents near the plants are well aware of the potential dangers, they said, though some worry less than others.

Arthur Joffrion, who has worked for nearly 40 years at Dow Chemical Co. and has lived in St. John Place for nearly as long, said he’s not losing any sleep worrying about another explosion.

“I think plants and chemical companies, they take all precautions,” Joffrion said. “They’re safe, but accidents and things occur. … I live for the day.”

Regardless, the state’s fertilizer industry is mushrooming.

In the last six months, CF Industries announced a $2.1 billion expansion of its Donaldsonville plant, including new ammonia and urea and ammonium nitrate production units. Mosaic announced a $700 million expansion at Faustina. BioNitrogen Louisiana Holdings LLC plans to spend $1 billion on five new plants in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Dyno Nobel was planning a $1 billion ammonia plant in Waggaman, just outside News Orleans, hours before the West, Texas, explosion. Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears raised concerns about safety but said Dyno officials assured him in a meeting Friday that none of the explosion-related chemicals would be onsite.

Some worry that increased ammonia production means a greater risk for an explosion like that in West.

But Morris Johnson, production manager for CF Industries in Donaldsonville, said his company learned some lessons from its 2000 incident and has continued to place a “strong focus on safety and security” since that time.

“I would say that in general both CF and the ammonia industry in general have an extremely sound process safety management system in place,” Johnson said. “It’s ingrained in our culture and reflects our safety commitments to our employees, contractors, neighbors and surrounding communities.”

All of the fertilizer plants require workers to take part in regular safety training. They also have in-house emergency response units trained in firefighting and chemical fire hazards, and work with local and state law enforcement and emergency response teams on responding to potential crises.

Mosaic Louisiana Plant Manager Steve Susick said every worker at the company’s plants goes through at least 40 hours of safety-related training or certification each year.

“We have become, obviously, very conscious of the business that we’re in and the local community, and that’s reflected both in the training that we do with all the personnel that we have,” Johnson said.

Although the company owns a large tract of land located between La. 3089, La. 3120 and La. 18, Johnson said less than one-third of the land is developed. The rest serves as a buffer area that can provide “a little bit of a safety margin” for the community in case of a catastrophic event, he said.

“We certainly can’t eliminate all risk in this business,” Johnson said, “but what we can do is minimize the risk, particularly in what it relates to the ongoing reliability of equipment, and we do that through extensive inspection, mechanical integrity tests … and also in terms of the training that we give our operators.”

Webre, the emergency preparedness director in Ascension Parish, said the key is having a plan in place at each facility. Still, not every plan is fool-proof, and he admitted he’s not sure what would happen if an explosion the caliber of the Texas plant occurred here.

“If something happens catastrophic that quick, it’s hard to do an evacuation,” Webre said. “You’re almost into a rescue operation at that point.”

Advocate business writer Ted Griggs and New Orleans bureau chief Sara Pagones contributed to this article.