The explosion, fueled by propylene, started at 8:37 a.m. and burned for more than three hours. Three hundred workers were evacuated and residents within a two-mile radius were told by authorities to remain in their homes.
The same plant also had an accident in 2009, according to Reuters. At that time, 60 pounds of flammable mixture was released, causing a fire that did not lead to injuries. Louisiana has experienced at least two other explosions in petrochemical facilities in the last two years: an explosion at the Westlake Chemicals vinyl plant in Geismar that “sent a cloud of toxic vinyl chloride and hydrochloric acid over the town” in 2012 and another at a Multi-Chem Group plan in New Iberia in 2011. Neither resulted in injuries, Reuters reports.
Thursday’s blast comes just months after about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April. That accident killed 15 people and injured more than 160. The West plant hadn’t been inspected by OSHA since 1985 and also slipped by six other regulatory agencies.
While the surrounding population near the Williams plant seems to be small, thousands of chemical plants across the country pose risks to large populations. Nearly 7,000 have reported that a worst-case scenario would impact populations greater than 1,000 people, and 90 plants would impact more than 1 million people.
Due to low funding and staffing issues, OSHA inspections have become very rare. The average workplace only gets a visit from an inspector every 99 years. Yet budget cuts may make things even worse: sequestration will force the agency to cut its budget by 8.2 percent, which could mean 1,200 fewer workplace inspections.
Pressure has been mounting on the petrochemical industry to improve safety after a blast in 2005 at BP refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured 170, one of the worst industrial accidents in decades. Reuters reports that these plants operate massive equipment under intense pressure and high heat, which makes them prone to fires and explosions.