PORT ALLEN — Emergency service crews hope to have a better handle Wednesday on site clean-up and damage assessment after Monday’s explosion and chemical fire at Air Liquide Speciality Chemicals in West Baton Rouge Parish, authorities said Tuesday.
Until that happens, U.S. 190 between Port Allen and Erwinville will remain closed, State Police spokesman Stephen Hammons said Tuesday.
The portion of U.S. 190 affected by the shutdown was about 14 miles, sheriff’s Col. Richie Johnson, of the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office said.
Air Liquide spokesman George Smalley said the cause of the fire had not been determined as of Tuesday afternoon.
The emergency forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes after authorities discovered the blaze involved thousands of acetylene gas cylinders. Acetylene is a fuel used for welding and blowtorches.
A worker who received minor burns in the fire was taken to a hospital Monday afternoon. He was treated and released, Smalley said.
Smalley said the company employs four workers at its Port Allen site assigned to refill cylinders stored there with the highly flammable gas.
Smalley said investigators believe at least two employees were present at the time of the fire.
Before Monday, Air Liquide had achieved a nearly “spotless” record with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, agency spokesman Rodney Mallett said.
Mallett said one public complaint had been lodged against the company within the past seven years. That 2005 complaint involved a nearby resident’s concern over lime run-off from the Port Allen location.
“It’s a simple site,” Mallett said, “and accidents like this are unpredictable.”
Mallett said the DEQ would conduct an investigation into the incident.
After the fire was largely extinguished, emergency response crews began securing the site Tuesday morning by starting to carefully remove some of the cylinders, Hammons said.
By Tuesday afternoon, Hammons said, crews had taken away “several hundred” of the unaffected cylinders and planned to work overnight to douse hot spots with water to continue cooling down the remaining burned and damaged cylinders.
Once all cylinders are cooled, crews would be able to assess the safest way to remove the cylinders, he said.
Hammons said U.S. 190’s closure and the evacuation order would remain in place until officials are confident the site is secure and the acetylene cylinders are no longer a threat.
“There’s still that hazard that one of those tanks can rupture,” he said. “We want to keep everyone out of harm’s way.”
Air Liquide officials issued a statement Tuesday saying said they would continue to work closely with emergency responders and governmental agencies involved.
“We recognize and acknowledge the inconvenience and impact this incident has caused to our neighbors, and we appreciate all of the authorities for their prompt and responsive efforts,” the statement says. “We are working with local officials to ensure that the area is opened safely and as quickly as possible, and will begin clean-up as soon as the site is cleared by authorities.”
Smalley said the company rented hotel and motel rooms for the approximately 200 people who were forced to leave their homes.
He said Air Liquide would continue to do so as long as the evacuation order remains in force.
West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies escorted evacuees to their homes throughout the day Tuesday to allow them to retrieve necessities such as clothing and other personal effects, Hammons said.