The final investigation report into a chemical fire and toxic gas release at the Bio-Lab facility in Westlake, La., in August 2020, recognizes extreme weather during Hurricane Laura for contributing to the event.
The Bio-Lab facility —referred to as the Bio-Lab Lake Charles facility — manufactures and supplies pool and spa chemicals containing trichloroisocyanuric acid (TCCA). TCCA is used throughout the country in pool care and, when put in large bodies of water such as pools, breaks down slowly, releasing chlorine in the water. When TCCA comes into contact with small amounts of water and does not dissolve, however, it can undergo a chemical reaction that generates heat, causing the decomposition of TCCA, which produces toxic chlorine gas.
On Aug. 27, 2020, more than 1 million pounds of TCCA were on-site at the Bio-Lab facility. As the Category 4 hurricane made landfall, its strong winds damaged buildings at the facility, including tearing off roofs. Rainwater from the storm contacted the TCCA stored inside the buildings, initiating a chemical reaction and subsequent decomposition. The heat initiated a fire, and a large plume of hazardous gases, including toxic chlorine, traveled from the facility. A portion of nearby Interstate 10 was closed for more than 28 hours, and local officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the surrounding community due to the release of hazardous gases.
In addition to recommending steps that the company and Louisiana state officials should take to prevent chemical releases during future hurricanes, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s report calls on federal regulators to increase their oversight of hazards associated with reactive chemicals.
In its final report about the incident, the CSB identified five safety issues:
- Lack of extreme weather preparation.
- Lack of process hazard analyses implementation.
- Lack of emergency preparedness and response.
- Lack of adherence to applicable hazardous materials codes.
- Lack of regulatory coverage of reactive chemical hazards.
Extreme Weather Preparation. The CSB report on the 2017 Arkema incident in Crosby, Texas, which also occurred following a Category 4 hurricane, should have informed Bio-Lab for its preparations for extreme weather, says the CSB. Bio-Lab did not implement the industry guidance for extreme weather preparation that was updated and published after the Arkema incident.
Process Hazard Analyses Implementation. TCCA is not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) process safety management (PSM) standard.
At the time of the incident, Bio-Lab had voluntarily implemented some elements of the PSM standard, and it had conducted a 2010 process hazard analysis (PHA), says the CSB in its report. Bio-Lab had not implemented a PHA recommendation to determine whether buildings at the facility could withstand damage from hurricane-strength winds.
Emergency Preparedness And Response. Bio-Lab experienced an approximately 5.5-hour delay in responding to the event, which likely increased its severity.
Adherence to Applicable Hazardous Materials Codes. The plant did not adhere to the existing National Fire Protection Association’s codes for high hazard industry occupancies, the CSB noted. These guidelines include safety precautions such as automatic extinguishing systems or other protections to minimize the danger to occupants before they have time to evacuate.
Regulatory Coverage of Reactive Chemical Hazards. As previously noted, TCCA is not covered by OSHA’s PSM standard; likewise, it is not covered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) risk management program (RMP). For those reasons, the facility was not required to implement baseline process safety management elements of its TCCA-related operations under these regulations.
In its final report, the CSB issued several recommendations to Bio-Lab:
- Construct new buildings and maintain existing buildings and structures to withstand hurricane winds and flooding.
- Implement safeguards and processes to ensure that hazardous chemicals are not released during extreme weather events.
- Improve its PHA action-item management system.
- Perform PHAs on all buildings and units processing or storing TCCA.
- Improve its emergency-response capabilities.
The CSB also reiterated two recommendations related to reactive chemicals that it has previously made to OSHA and EPA. The CSB is calling on OSHA to amend its PSM regulation to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards such as TCCA that could have catastrophic consequences.
In addition, it is calling on EPA to revise its accidental-release prevention requirements to cover additional reactive hazards that have the potential to seriously impact the public. The CSB also urged the EPA to implement recommendations made by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to address risks to chemical facilities presented by natural hazards and climate change.
Finally, the CSB recommended that Louisiana officials require chemical facility operators to evaluate the hazards from hurricanes and accompanying wind, rainwater, floodwater or storm surge forces and implement safeguards against those hazards.
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