Bio-Lab’s Toxic Record Presages Chlorine-Fueled Fire Following Hurricane Laura

Maalvika Bhat, Sara Wylie, Megan Raisle, Eric Nost, Cole Alder and EDGI

EDGI Internal Reviewers 
Marcy Beck, Jess Varner, Casey Greenleaf

The blaze at Bio-Lab following Hurricane Laura was not the first release of toxic chlorine from the facility, EDGI’s research into available federal data finds.

As Hurricane Laura tore through Louisiana on the morning of August 27th, a chlorine leak at a Westlake chemical manufacturing facility called Bio-Lab ignited, setting the facility ablaze. As it burned, the facility, which manufactures chlorine for swimming pools and cleaning agents, sent massive clouds of chlorine gas pluming over the community of Westlake for more than 24 hours, prompting Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards to implement a shelter-in-place order for residents living in the vicinity.

A video posted by the Cajun Navy on Facebook shows smoke rising from a chemical fire in Westlake, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. Aug. 27, 2020.

Though generally regarded as a household substance, chlorine has a bleak history. It was the first chemical weapon used in World War I at the Battle of Ypres. French soldiers, entirely unprepared for this new form of warfare, choked to death as 160 tons of chlorine were released from canisters set by the German army. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from its Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database, between 2005-2017 Bio-Lab released an aggregate of 312.5 tons of chlorine. In 2017 alone it released 10.77 tons. EPA has taken four formal enforcement actions against Bio-Lab, constituting a mere $2,236 dollars in fines. Meanwhile, the corporation generates $456.58 million in sales annually.

Chlorine gas is very harmful to humans and residents should take every precaution to avoid it, according to Wilma Subra, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “Chlorine gas moves offsite quickly. When inhaled, chlorine can damage the lung tissue permanently. It never rejuvenates.” In addition to lung damage, chlorine gas can cause “severe blisters, a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat; nausea; vomiting; and headaches.” This toxic chemical, now banned as a wartime weapon, is being unleashed on Louisiana residents at a shocking scale.

The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) tracks the management of certain toxic chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment. While chlorine is categorized as toxic and tracked through the TRI, the EPA only requires facilities that manufacture, process, or otherwise use these chemicals to submit an annual self-reported emissions form. No fenceline monitoring or third party testing is required to verify such self-reports. Despite its known health risks, the EPA has also not yet established a Reference Concentration (inhalation reference concentration) — the safety threshold for chlorine exposure. RfC is an “estimate of continuous inhalation exposure of a chemical to the human population through inhalation, that is likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime.” Additionally, chlorine is not one of the criteria pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The health burden of this recent explosion, on top of the other less-visible chronic toxic releases from Bio-Lab and its neighbors, will be borne by the residents of Lake Charles. The average income of a Lake Charles resident is $23,475 a year. The US average is $28,555 a year. Louisiana’s petrochemical and fossil fuel income rests on a foundation of well-documented environmental racism and injustice. “In social and economic ways,” writes Virginia Tech researcher Barbara Allen, “Louisiana lags dramatically behind other chemical industry-insensitive states, such as Texas and New Jersey. It represents a worst-case scenario in the United States for a number of reasons, which include: the ethnic and racial politics of land ownership, the comparative power of extractive industries, the extensive poverty and illiteracy, and the government collusion with industry against local concerns.” 1 Due in part to this collusion “Louisiana residents and environmental advocates say a shortage of solid government information on the state of the air is typical. With dozens of petroleum, petrochemical, and other industrial sites, Louisiana is home to communities with some of the nation’s highest cancer risks.” However, despite clear and consistent efforts by Louisiana communities — from conducting their own air monitoring to filling regulatory gaps to building the environmental justice movement — significant improvements for overburdened communities have yet to materialize. For a clear look at the environmental violence and racism faced by Westlake residents, consider the following maps from EPA’s EJScreen tool. As shown in figures 1-2, not only are minority neighborhoods facing disproportionately high rates of respiratory hazard and cancer from toxic air pollution, but they are also being excluded from the financial security that these industries bring to their white neighbors (see figures 3 and 4).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Disaster fixes and mitigations only address the moment; not the slow violence that Port Charles is a participant in. This interruption in the chlorine supply chain is unlikely to significantly impact the lives of those across the country who use Bio-Lab products for their crystal-clear pools. Meanwhile, it is nearby residents facing the consequences of this latest assault on their health and homes with the toxic air from the fire. Reckoning with the asymmetries of experience that this fire makes apparent requires becoming cognizant of the costs of chemical production. Systemic awareness is vital to addressing the ingrained racism that creates, time and again, the conditions for selectively living and forgetting such foreseeable disasters as Bio-Lab’s blaze.  

The people of Louisiana deserve better. We all do.

1 Barbara Allen, Uneasy Alchemy page 7

Data included herein were drawn from EPA’s publicly available Enforcement and Compliance History Online ECHO database on September 1, 2020. EDGI has no control over the nature, content, or sustained availability of this database. While EDGI works to assure that the information in this report is correct, that information is subject to limitations of the ECHO database, and is provided “as is.” EDGI makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness or reliability of this information. The information and images within this report are for general information purposes only. To examine this data for yourself you can run the notebook here.

Link to notebook

Link to ECHO page of this facility