On a Thursday morning in June, Antionette West was lying on a couch in her trailer not far from a row of chemical plants near the Mississippi River in Geismer, Lousiana, when the house began to shake.
She initially thought there had been an explosion at a vinyl chloride plant about a mile away, where there had been an explosion less than a year before. This time though, she saw black smoke coming from another direction.
It was from the Williams Olefins plant, an ‘ethane cracker.’ It’s the same type of plant that Shell is considering building in Monaca. It makes ethylene and propylene from natural gas.
Inside the Williams plant, three miles away, men were running for their lives. Two workers died and more than 100 were injured.
Like many plants in this town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the plant is expanding. Geismar sits in the middle of Louisiana’s ‘chemical corridor,’ a 60-mile stretch where roughly a quarter of America’s petrochemicals are processed.
In Geismar, local boosters of the industry say the safety record of the chemical industry is, on the whole, very good
The chemical plants play a central role in the U.S. economy. And that role is expanding, along with the number and size of plants.