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Booming La. chemical industry boosts economy, addresses safety issues

Pattie Steib/Getty Images/iStockphoto
There were 25 fatalities in chemical manufacturing plants nationwide in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, barely half the rate among all workers. Photo credit: Pattie Steib/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hundreds of chemical plant facilities stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Because of the volatile nature of many of the products they make, explosions, chemical releases and other accidents are real threats, but emergency officials say they’re well-drilled to respond, according to a recent Associated Press story.

State and local officials have welcomed oil refineries, chemical plants and related industries, with their heavy capital investments and good-paying jobs. Louisiana is experiencing a boom in new plants and expansions, driven by low natural gas prices, as well as the area’s strategic advantages.

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Louisiana Economic Development counts more than $30 billion in investments announced in Louisiana starting in 2011, and that doesn’t include a number of upgrades. Among them is a $400 million expansion at the Williams Companies Inc. plant where two workers were killed and dozens more were injured in a June 13 explosion that was heard for miles.

The workers killed were Scott Thrower, 47, of St. Amant, and Zachary Green, 29, of Hammond, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating.

According to a June 24 story in Tulsa World, officials with Williams Cos. said earlier this week they believe they know where the explosion at the Geismar plant occurred, but the cause has not been determined. The natural gas liquids plant remains closed and under investigation by federal agencies.

There were 25 fatalities in chemical manufacturing plants nationwide in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a fatality rate of 1.9 per 100,000 full-time workers, barely half the rate among all workers.

Nationwide, 3.8 of every 100 full-time workers was injured in 2011 according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The injury rate was 2.4 in the overall chemical manufacturing sector, and 0.6 in the area of chemical manufacturing including the Williams plant. That’s among the very lowest injury rate of any manufacturing sector, according to the Associated Press.

 Ron Perry, the emergency preparedness director in St. Charles Parish, told reporters that concerns about chemical accidents rank “somewhere in the middle” of his list of worries. Hurricanes are at the top this time of year.

Besides about 25 major oil and chemical facilities, there’s also a nuclear power plant. Large plants have internal firefighting forces and fire departments and plants agree to help each other. Perry said such mutual-aid agreements actually make the large concentrations of industry safer.

Incidents large and small do occur in Louisiana, driven in part by the extraordinary density of the chemical and refining industries along the lower Mississippi River, sometimes likened to Germany’s industrial Ruhr region, notes the Associated Press story.

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Only the Houston area can compare to Louisiana’s corridor, where the Mississippi provides fresh water and transportation and an intricate system of pipelines carries raw materials to plants and products away.

According to a Louisiana Chemical Association report issued in March, there were 311 chemical manufacturers with 15,727 employees in parishes along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to its mouth in 2012. These numbers exclude oil refiners, themselves a major presence, and some plastics manufacturers.

The average salary at new and expanding plants announced since 2011 is nearly $70,000, according to the state. That’s significantly above the median household income of about $43,000 a year in Louisiana, says the Associated Press piece.

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