Westlake chemical plant has history of spills, violations

All clear given at Axiall refinery after furnace fire
Published: Dec. 21, 2013 at 4:13 AM CST|Updated: Dec. 26, 2013 at 2:55 PM CST
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(Source: KPLC Viewer)
(Source: KPLC Viewer)

The fire at the Axiall chemical plant in Westlake is out, but state police are investigating the cause of the fire that began in a unit containing hazardous chemicals.

Billions of pounds of chemicals — including hydrochloric acid and vinyl chloride, which were located where the fire began — are stored at the facility in Westlake, which blends chemicals that are used in paints, coatings, glass and other materials.

And, as a KATC investigation found, the company has a long track record of chemical spills and violating government regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

The company was fined $400,000 by LDEQ in September — one of the largest fines of the year — after years of chemical spills and environmental issues. Part of the settlement included a stipulation that the company install a $190,000 leak detection and repair program.

But chemical releases have continued. On Dec. 2, 104 pounds of vinyl chloride spilled after an equipment failure, and in November, a leak in a corroded pipe led to the release of 171 pounds of hydrogen chloride gas, according to LDEQ documents. A month earlier, another leak led to the release of 357 pounds of flammable liquid.

The company also was fined $6,000 last year for spilling 225 pounds of vinyl chloride after another equipment failure.

These issues and others have led the facility to be in "significant violation" of two Environmental Protection Agency regulations for years. It has had significant violations to the Clean Air Act for three years, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for more than two years, according to the EPA. It has also been in noncompliance with the Clean Water Act for three years, according to the EPA. The facility sits near the Lake Charles lake.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration has also cited the company for three serious violations since and fined them $13,000 for violating employee safety standards.

• $5,600 in 2012 for not taking proper steps to protect employees against electric shock.

• $4,900 in 2011 for not providing respirators to employees who handle vinyl chloride.

• $2,500 in 2009 for failing to inspect equipment to ensure proper installation.

Axiall was created this year when PPG Industries and Georgia Gulf merged. Eagle US 2 LLC became the owner of part of the facility earlier this year.

There plant stores up to 10 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, and up to 100 million pounds of vinyl chloride, according to public records filed with state police.

No employees were injured in the fire, but 12 drivers were transported to a local hospital complaining of respiratory problems.

NOTE: Story by KATC.