By MARY FOSTER
GEISMAR, La. (AP) - An explosion and fire at a chemical plant in southeastern Louisiana caused the release of hazardous vinyl chloride into the air, authorities said.
No one was injured in Thursday's accident at the Westlake Vinyls plant in the Geismar community, an area that plays host to a large number of chemical plants that dot the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
State police spokesman Russell Graham said it wasn't clear how much of the chemical was released, but a small cloud was hovering over the plant. A handful of residents living in the heavily industrial area were advised to stay indoors, keep doors and windows closed and turn off air conditioning units. Other plants in the area were advised to do likewise.
"This is an industrial area," Graham said. "You're talking several plants." The plant's owner, Houston-based Westlake Chemical Corp., said the blast occurred about 8 a.m. during the restarting of a vinyl chloride monomer unit. State police said the fire was out by 9:20 a.m. Vinyl chloride monomers are used is for the manufacture of polymer, which is used to make plastic products.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that vinyl chloride is a known cancer-causing substance in humans. Westlake Chemical said the cause of the explosion was not known. A line of strong thunderstorms passed through the region Thursday morning.
Graham said the cause would be investigated by state police hazardous materials experts, the emergency office of Ascension Parish, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the company.
Air monitoring units were dispatched to the area to monitor pollution, Graham said. Several major roads were blocked in the area to all but emergency traffic, Graham said.
In 2010, Westlake Chemical said the plant won an award for safety that year from the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.
Alan Sayre in New Orleans contributed to this report.