GONZALES — The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has issued two new compliance orders against Williams Olefins over air and potential water releases stemming from a June 13 fire and explosion at its Ascension Parish facility in Geismar.
The new compliance order dealing with air quality cites the Tulsa, Okla.-based company for at least 39 air permit or reporting violations starting in 2007 and extending to the day after the June blast.
The explosion sent a fireball high in the air seconds after a 200-foot-high vapor cloud was emitted from the facility, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board officials testified to Congress last week. Two men were fatally burned and 114 people were injured.
The independent federal agency is one of several state and federal entities probing the fire, whose cause remains unknown. But investigators and the company have focused on the company’s shattered propylene fractionator as a possible point of origin. The machinery uses heat to refine polymer-grade propylene used in consumer plastics.
The blast occurred as the company was doing planned maintenance and finishing a 600 million-pound-per-year expansion of its olefins operation.
Separately, DEQ has issued another compliance order over contaminated water that ended up in a pond on site that is usually pumped into the Mississippi River. That order, issued June 19, puts water quality limits on future discharges from the pond.
The other new compliance order, the third and most extensive order involving air quality against Williams since 2007, includes three air permit violations from the fire and massive explosion.
Cheryl Nolan, assistant secretary for the DEQ Office of Environmental Compliance, said Tuesday the violations in the order before the fire were going to have to be addressed anyway.
She said DEQ officials were working on the compliance order when they received a key, early follow-up report from Williams on air emissions stemming from the fire.
Nolan stressed that investigators do not know what caused the fire and so changes or additions to the order could occur.
“As the investigation unfolds and we find more information, we may, in all likelihood, have to amend the order to address the new information,” she said.
Williams officials pointed out Tuesday that the basis of the air compliance order came through the company’s “full and transparent cooperation” with DEQ by reporting the incidents at the time.
Keith Isbell, Williams spokesman, said the company is in the early stages of reviewing the order.
“We continue to work closely in a cooperative and transparent manner with the DEQ, as well as with all the agencies involved in this investigation,” he said.
In the company’s June 20 report to DEQ on the fire, Williams officials raised the possibility that the fire could be an “upset.”
Under state environmental regulations, an upset occurs from “sudden and reasonably unforeseeable events” beyond the control of the owner, including an act of God. Upsets are a defense for actions brought against companies for non-compliance with emission limits.
But under the regulations, upsets do not include poor equipment design, maintenance or operation.
DEQ’s air quality compliance order says that Williams has not met the requirement yet to make the “upset” claim. It gives the company 60 days to respond to section of the order related to the June 13 fire, including identifying the root cause.
Among the more than 30 past incidents — some of which involved late submission of reports — the compliance order noted 15 instances going back to 2010 of problems with the company’s leak detection program, designed to hold down “fugitive emissions” of chemicals in the plant infrastructure.
The order claims the fire at or near the propylene fractionator led the company to violate its air permit, as well as improperly use a flare that burned off product as a safety response to the fire.
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