State police dispute report of warehouse fire in Belle Chasse

Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser with emergency officials near Sun Drilling's warehouse
Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser with emergency officials near Sun Drilling's warehouse

Belle Chasse, La. - State police insist there was no fire at the Sun Drilling warehouse on Main Street in Belle Chasse, despite initial reports from parish officials.

State investigators say an unintended chemical reaction at the facility led to a heavy output of gas from a warehouse tank.  And they say that most of the gas appears to be nitrogen -- an inert gas and one that does not pose a great risk to public health.

Nonetheless, an evacuation order for at least 200 homes in the area will remain in effect for the rest of Friday night.

Friday afternoon, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said that the chemical benzene was being released from a fire at the facility.  He reported that a thick cloud of smoke was emanating from the fire, and that it could make breathing difficult for people in its path.  He cited lightning as a likely cause.

But Friday evening, State Police Sgt. Joe Pigilia tells FOX 8 News that there was no fire at the facility.  He attributes the entire incident to a chemical reaction in the tank, but it's not clear how the reaction started.  And Pigilia says it's not known yet whether there was any release of benzene.

Shortly before 5:00 p.m., emergency workers reported one of the tanks at the Sun facility was "swelling," and some investigators and other responders were ordered to evacuate the area.  Reporters near the scene were ordered to move further away from the site.

Sgt. Joe Pigilia says the swelling tank report was also erroneous.

The evacuation order includes at least 200 homes nearest to the Sun warehouse tanks, according to Pres. Nungesser.  The zone is bounded by Evangeline Trace, M Street and East 3rd Street, from Oak Road all the way to Hwy 23.

Officials opened the Belle Chasse Auditorium as a shelter for evacuees, but a FOX 8 News crew in Belle Chasse says only a handful of people are staying there now.

The sheriff's office and other surrounding buildings were evacuated shortly after the incident was reported, and police on scene were directing people away from the site.  Students at Belle Chasse High were released for the day.

"I understand the primary school is not in danger at this point but as a safety precaution I believe they're going to let out early as well," Nungesser said.

Authorities also ordered evacuations from about 50 trailers near Lions Hall, north of the Sun facility.

Workers from the Department of Environmental Quality took air samples, and so far they show no signs of anything toxic or harmful.

Still, Nungesser warned residents to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning systems, until authorities are sure of what the smoke cloud contains.

The Belle Chasse ferry was shut down during the incident.  "Anyone that needs to cross the river at the Belle Chasse ferry needs to go around to the east bank of Plaquemines," the parish president told FOX 8.

LA 23 was closed southbound, just north of the Belle Chasse Tunnel and northbound at Majestic Oaks.  But the parish now says all roads have been reopened, as well as the Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel.