LAKE CHARLES — Every Monday at noon for years, the sirens would ring out. To the residents of Westlake, Lake Charles, and surrounding areas, it was nothing unusual—just a test of the Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) system.
But Hurricane Laura in 2020 damaged many of these sirens. Unfortunately, that meant there were no sirens sounding the alarm on the morning of Wednesday, March 22, 2023, following a chlorine leak at BioLab — a facility that produced chlorine — that caused a hazardous cloud to loom over the city of Westlake for hours.
The news of the BioLab chlorine leak broke from state police, other government agencies, and local and social media. The first reports of the leak came in at 9:15 a.m., according to Gregory Langley, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ).
Those living within a one-mile radius of the I-10 bridge near the Westlake exit were told to immediately shelter in place, close their windows and doors, turn off any air conditioning, and wait for more emergency updates. Phillips 66, located across the street from BioLab, had most of their workers evacuate their complex. Langley said that Sasol, Westlake Chemical, Phillips 66, and other plants near BioLab were told to shelter in place. The order was lifted around noon that day.
Langley told Southwest Louisiana Journal that the plant makes tablets to sanitize swimming pools, and they use chlorine for that process.
“It was a feeder line that was bringing it in. I believe they located the source right away,” he said. “We didn’t get any readings on our air monitoring that were anywhere in the range of being harmful to human health, but it was enough that there was an odor. They shut the line in, which means they cut the feed off at both ends and they bled it and when it had exhausted the gas that was in the line, the leak was over.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, liquid chlorine turns into a gas when it is released, and that gas can stay close to the ground and quickly spread. It has a strong bleach-like odor, but the CDC warns that “repeated exposure to chlorine reduces the ability to detect” it. Being exposed to chlorine at high levels is associated with a host of symptoms that include but are not limited to blurry vision, respiratory distress, skin blisters, nausea, and vomiting.
The March 23 leak at BioLab is still under investigation by LDEQ.
“When they complete their investigation, if they find probable cause to submit it to the enforcement division, enforcement will look at it, and issue an action if there’s an appropriate action,” Langley said.
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An unreliable alert system
CAER started in 1986 through a partnership between industry and public officials; 37 sirens were installed in 1991, according to American Press archives. Shelter-in-place was a concept shared with the community as early as when the first simulated emergency occurred in 1987—a test chlorine leak at the PPG chemical plant in Westlake. (Most of PPG merged with Georgia Gulf Corp. in 2013 and formed Axiall, which was subsequently acquired by Westlake Chemical in 2016.)
The CAER response team used the simulated leak as an opportunity to share a pamphlet called “Are You Prepared?” with the Calcasieu community. There were three main concepts of preparation then: protect your breath, shelter where you are, or evacuate immediately. To protect your breathing in the event of a leak, one should “cover the nose and mouth with a damp handkerchief or other cloth and fold the cloth several times,” the pamphlet said.
Jared Maze, operations manager of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP), told Southwest Louisiana Journal there are 33 CAER sirens in Calcasieu Parish, but only 12 have been operational since Hurricane Laura: nine in Lake Charles, two in Vinton and one in Iowa.
Maze confirmed there was no audible emergency alert at the time of the BioLab leak because there were no functioning sirens within the vicinity. Insurance assessments have impeded the repair process, but an engineering firm is now working on specifications for new sirens.
“Currently, we are in collaboration with all the municipalities to move forward with the project as a whole, as a parish,” Maze said.
While Calcasieu Parish residents wait for the emergency sirens to be repaired, they can sign up for text alerts from Calcashout Emergency Services to stay updated. However, some residents said they don’t always receive texts.
Lake Charles resident Leslie O’Malley is signed up for general emergency alerts. She says she did not get an alert on her phone from the parish, but received a notification at 11:35 a.m.—not long before the shelter-in-place was lifted—from her children’s school that they were sheltering in place as a precaution.
“This area doesn’t do an adequate job on educating the public on preparedness for these kinds of emergencies,” O’Malley said, “First, what are the sirens, when do they go off, and what does it mean when they go off? What does shelter in place mean in the real sense of what one should do? There’s a lot to it but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t look it up during the emergency. If there is such an alert system that someone can opt into, texts or something, there’s no marketing or education on that that is widely available. If there is, it is not very accessible.”
Living in a ‘sacrifice zone’
Southwest Louisiana residents are no strangers to toxic chemical emergencies. According to news coverage analyzed by SWLA Journal, there have been at least eight major leaks, fires, or explosions related to area chemical companies since 2020.
This was also not the first time that the community experienced a BioLab hazardous incident. As previously reported by multiple news outlets and explored in depth by Southerly, BioLab was a casualty of Hurricane Laura in 2020, when a chlorine fire took three days to be extinguished. All of those who had not already evacuated the area due to the storm were advised to shelter in place until it was clear.
This incident is still under investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal organization that has only three of five board seats filled, and about 16 investigators nationwide. Another BioLab plant in Conyers, Ga. is also under investigation by the board after a September 2020 decomposition event caused a chlorine vapor release that closed the interstate for six hours.
The board provides recommendations but does not enforce penalties, and currently has a backlog of 116 open recommendations. According to the board’s 2022 Performance and Accountability Report, the investigative team is developing the final investigation report for the Westlake BioLab incident, and the Georgia BioLab investigation will be included with it, in the first half of 2023. These incidents are among the board’s 16 ongoing investigations as of 2022. The Board did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In November 2022, KIK Consumer Products, BioLab’s parent company, held a grand reopening for a new facility. BioLab and KIK Consumer Products did not respond to requests for comment.
Many industrial projects are drawn to Calcasieu and Cameron Parish because of their generous tax incentives. The Calcasieu Parish School Board approved BioLab’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) request on May 12, 2021. Public records show that, on May 27, 2021, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury also considered the adoption of a resolution approving the Industrial Tax Exemption Application for BioLab. In April 2021, the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry met and approved the application.
The project was estimated to create 71 direct new jobs with an estimated annual payroll of approximately $8.3 million. The capital investment was estimated at $142.6 million, which could generate an estimated $4.8 million in sales tax revenue. Some of the terms of the five year contract included an 80% exemption from parish property taxes, with 100% Loss of Exemption for non-compliance.