Donaldsonville Explosion: OSHA Joins Investigation, Safety Debate Raised

The Donaldsonville explosion on Friday night at the CF Industries plant in a heavily industrial corridor in Ascension Parish, Louisiana has sparked new awareness of worker and public safety issues. On Saturday, State Police Trooper Jared Sandifer announced that officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would be joining the investigation into the facility as soon as the conditions were safe.

On Friday, a state police hazardous materials team overnighted on the site.

As I reported yesterday, a longtime employee of 34 years was killed instantly in the blast. Seven other people were injured — four plant employees and three contractors.

For more details about the Donaldsonville explosion, including a video report, please click right here.

Coming back-to-back with Thursday’s massive explosion at the nearby Williams-Olefins chemical plant in Geismar, the Donaldsonville explosion has rattled some nerves.

Ascension Parish sheriff Jeff Wiley objected to the media reports that the eruptive release of the nitrogen was an explosion. He compared it more to something like a tire or a balloon leaking gas.

However, locals don’t underestimate the potential damage of the events.

In the wake of the tragic West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14, the Baton Rouge Advocate published a map of the four fertilizer plants in the Donaldsonville area. In addition to CF Industries in Donaldsonville, there are two Mosaic plants, one in Faustina and one in Uncle Sam. A fourth plant, PotashCorp, is located in nearby Geismar.

Each plant provides jobs for hundreds of employees and contractors, but safety is always a concern.

But CF Industries is the largest, and like the West plant, it produces ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

And it’s growing. The plant recently announced a $2.1 billion expansion.

All told, over 300 chemical plants employing more than 15,000 people work in chemical plants in the industrial corridor that runs from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi. They also provide opportunities to a large number of contractor employees and businesses.

And that isn’t even counting the many oil refineries and plastic manufacturing plants in the area.

Despite the bad publicity caused by having two unrelated accidents in two days, the industry as a whole is safety-conscious. The Christian Science Monitor noted:

“[C]hemical plants are actually safer than the average industry, reporting a fatality rate of 1.9 workers per 100,000 compared to the national average of about 3 fatalities per 100,000 workers. The industry had 25 fatalities across the country in 2011.”

Those safety concerns will be heightened even more after the recent incidents.

Right now, police say that there’s no evidence of terrorism or similar criminal wrongdoing. The OSHA and other investigations into the Donaldsonville explosion are still ongoing.

[image by Marcus Obal via Wikimedia Commons]