Williams Olefins had humble beginnings

When brothers Miller and David Williams formed the Williams-McQuary Construction Co. in 1908, their Fort Smith, Ark., sidewalk-building work was a far cry from the pipeline and chemical producing company it would eventually become.

By 1918, the brothers streamlined the company’s name to Williams Brothers, had begun building pipelines and moved the company to Tulsa, Okla., according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Over the years the company has built more than 100,000 miles of pipeline in more than 40 countries and diversified its holdings into fertilizer, energy, metals and chemicals.

Today, it’s a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with offices, facilities and operations across the United States, including the Williams Olefins LLC facility in Geismar.

Although the Geismar facility was originally built in 1968 by Allied Chemical, it eventually came under the operations of Williams Olefins LLC after a merger with Union Texas in September 1999.

According to information on the company’s website, the company employs about 4,200 people and operates in 22 states and in Canada.

The Geismar facility produces ethylene, propylene and other products through the thermal cracking of ethane and propane, according to an expansion permit filed by the company in 2011.

The ethylene is piped directly out of the facility while propylene is stored in pressure vessels and either piped out of the facility or shipped by tank car, according to the permit application.

An online search of records through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows no enforcement inspections at the facility from 2008 through June 2013.

The state Department of Environmental Quality staff conducted air monitoring around the site Thursday, but as of Thursday evening, had not found any areas of concern for the public, according to Jean Kelly, spokeswoman for the DEQ.

Although records filed by the facility to the DEQ show that over the years there have been incidents of pollution releases, in general the facility has stayed away from any major incidents in the few years before Thursday’s explosion.

In an air quality compliance inspection report conducted by the DEQ in late 2011 and early 2012, the facility was described as “well maintained and housekeeping appears to be excellent. Little or no odors were detected on-site and no evidence of spillage or leakage was observed in any part of the facility.”

As part of that inspection, the DEQ reviewed reports from the facility that outlined releases of pollution from December 2009 until December 2011. The few issues found by the DEQ were already being remedied under an agreement the company had reached with the agency.

The areas of concern were a relatively short list of items that included minor releases to a failure to repair a leaking part within a 15-day deadline. The company’s list of self-reported “deviations” was resolved through a settlement agreement with the DEQ for $16,000 plus the cost of enforcement, according to documents filed with the agency.

In 2011, the plant filed a permit application with the DEQ for an expansion that would increase its ethylene production ability by 39 percent, according to the permit request.

“Williams anticipates construction to commence by June 2012 and startup to occur by June 2013,” according to the permit.

Questions emailed to the company about whether the construction had been completed or was still ongoing at the time of the explosion weren’t answered Thursday.