After Hurricane Laura makes landfall, crews battle chlorine fire at BioLab plant in Westlake

Officials say an unknown amount of chlorine was released into the air

Smoke is seen rising in the distance from the BioLab Westlake after Hurricane Laura passed through the area on August 27, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana . The hurricane hit with powerful winds causing extensive damage to the city. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the destructive wake of Hurricane Laura, emergency responders and hazmat crews spent most of Thursday battling a chemical fire at a chlorine plant in Westlake in Calcasieu Parish.

The BioLab facility, located on Interstate 10 near Lake Charles, sustained unspecified damages as Laura struck Cameron and Calcasieu parishes early Thursday, causing the plant’s chlorine products to leak and ignite, said Louisiana State Police Col. Kevin Reeves.

The fire occurred after the leaking chlorine decomposed, Reeves said.

BioLab personnel initially responded and tried unsuccessfully to control the fire, prompting them to call state authorities for help. LSP’s Emergency Services Unit technicians, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Department of Transportation and Development were still working to contain the situation Thursday afternoon.

Authorities closed a stretch of Interstate 10 near mile marker 26 as crews battled the blaze.

The plant fire was the first topic addressed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in his 1 p.m. press conference Thursday. Edwards told residents who live near the facility to shelter in place with their windows closed and air conditioners off until further notice.

Reeves, who also spoke at the press conference, said an unknown amount of chlorine gas was released into the air.

BioLab personnel evacuated the facility ahead of the storm on Wednesday night, and it appears the fire began when no one was there, according to BioLab’s website, which only briefly mentioned the incident in a post that read: “We can confirm that, as a result of damage sustained during Hurricane Laura, there is currently a fire at our plant located at our Biolab Lake Charles, LA facility. Our priority is the safety and well-being of the Lake Charles community of which we are a part. We are deploying a specialized team to the site, and we are working with first responders, local authorities, and environmental agencies to contain and mitigate the impact of this incident as quickly as possible. The facility had been evacuated when the hurricane was upgraded to category 4 after following shut-down protocols, and all employees are confirmed to be safe at this time. We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”

BioLab executives could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Anne Rolfes, an environmental activist with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the incident is indicative of a continuing problem with petrochemical companies building facilities in areas prone to hurricanes.

“The problem is the petrochemical industry has plans to expand and build a lot more facilities in both Calcasieu and Cameron Parish,” Rolfes said. “That’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense to build more facilities in areas that are especially vulnerable to hurricanes.”

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.