Dow vapor sends at least 30 to hospital

Odor caused throat, eye irritation

July 13, 2009 at 9:14 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

When Pam Butler awoke in her River Park apartment at 5:45 a.m. on June 7, she was greeted with a headache and dizziness.

“Then I smelled that odor,” she said. “I thought the AC unit at the apartment was broken.”

But it wasn’t a leaky AC unit, instead, ethyl acrylate vapor was leaking out of the nearby Dow Chemical plant. According to a Dow statement, a tank at the site began to release the odor shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday after the structural condition of the tank became an issue. Dow officials said that the odor causes no long-term health effects, but that it can cause nose and throat irritation as well as headaches and nausea.

That proved to be the case for several residents living or working near the site.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said that two deputies working checkpoints near the plant were treated and released from St. Charles Parish Hospital. Hospital spokesman Brandon Kelly said that at least 30 patients were seen by the hospital on Tuesday and Wednesday, all presenting with symptoms of throat and eye irritation.

“All have been discharged,” Kelly said. “As far as I'm aware there have been no serious cases.”

Some residents also evacuated to a temporary shelter set up by the parish at E.J. Landry Alternative School. Parish spokeswoman Renee Simpson said that 12 people registered at the shelter, though not all of them stayed after registering.

Butler didn't leave her River Park apartment, but said that many of her neighbors were unsure of what exactly was going on Tuesday morning.

“No one knew anything,” she said. “I asked my apartment manager what the smell was and she didn't know, and my mother called and said she was having trouble breathing because of the smell.

“She said she opened the door to get some air, but the smell was much worse outside.”

When the Sheriff's Office began blocking off the street, Butler and the rest of her neighbors found out that the odor was coming from Dow.

“I thought they usually run sirens if something happens at the plant, but I didn't hear anything,” she said.

Simpson said that the parish did not run the sirens because the vapor’s concentration was non-toxic.

“From an emergency management standpoint, this event did not warrant blowing the warning sirens because we were dealing with what the  DEQ still identifies as a non-toxic concentration of this vapor,” she said. “Blaring the sirens would have created panic at a time when EOC was still working as quickly as possible to gather correct information to get to the public via our own media outlets."

Champagne said that his office responded immediately after learning of the problem from Dow and set up road blocks on River Road. Traffic control points were also set up near the area. At around 6:45 a.m., Dow began working with the parish's Department of Emergency Preparedness.

Dow treated the tank with foam in order to neutralize the substance, though the smell lingered Wednesday. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality also conducted air quality testing near the Dow site on both sides of the river, and late Tuesday night the parish reported that all readings coming back from their own air quality sampling were within allowable levels. 

Dow was still working to neutralize the ethyl acrylate odor at 4:30 a.m. on June 8, and the company loaded the tank into rail cars to eliminate all odor concerns once it was safe to do so.

View other articles written Jonathan Menard

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