After an explosion at an industrial fertilizer facility in West, Texas two weeks ago that left 14 dead and nearly 200 injured, officials at the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) are studying the incident to see if they can learn anything to prevent a similar disaster from occurring in St. Charles Parish.
Ron Perry, emergency preparedness director, said he sat down with his staff to discuss the West disaster.
"We are in the process of critiquing that event to make sure we have no similar vulnerabilities," he said. "We don’t think that we do, but we are going to take the event apart based on the best information that we have to make sure that everything is in line as it should be so that our decisions are the correct ones."
Although St. Charles Parish does not have a fertilizer plant, the 23 industrial sites within the parish alert the EOC to an average of 115 to 116 incidents per year, most of which are small problems reported by the plants for the sake of informing the community rather than out of a need to protect area residents.
The most serious industrial accidents occurring in the parish happened in the 1970s and 80s. In 1973 Shell Chemical experienced an explosion due to a propane leak that killed two residents living in the nearby Diamond community and also damaged a number of area homes. Another explosion occurred in 1988 that killed seven Shell Refinery (now Motiva Enterprises) employees and injured 18 others. In addition, in 1982 the only forced evacuation due to a chemical spill was initiated in the parish.
In latter years local industry have installed a number of safety upgrades that have helped prevent disastrous incidents. Steve Sirmon, emergency coordinator, said it is in the industry’s best interest to stay on top of plant safety.
"The industry has a vested interest in these things not happening. It is bad publicity, but it is also money. They are a company," he said. "If they have to shut down their plant for an explosion or fire, that affects everything."
The EOC has direct lines fed into their headquarters from each industrial site in the parish that they test on a weekly basis.
"We are in regular, constant communication with these folks," Perry said. "I would hazard the opinion that there is nothing that goes on in those plant sites of which we are not aware. We know what the chemicals are. We know what the hazards are."
Each time an industrial site has an incident on their premises they call the EOC, which is staffed at all times. EOC staff members in turn analyze potential threats to the community and take the appropriate actions.
Perry said one major difference between the industrial site in West and the ones in St. Charles Parish are local zoning laws.
"What seems to be dissimilar from there to here is the proximity in which they allow schools, hospitals and nursing homes to locate right up next to the plant fence. That doesn’t happen here," he said.
The EOC has mapped each of the five industrial centers in the parish within a 2-mile and 5-mile radius.
Senior Emergency Coordinator Jason Tastet said a major event at one of the parish’s industrial sites could have effects up to two miles in each direction.
"Here we have something that can possibly go out about two miles, which would be really bad. It could happen. It’s not the most likely scenario, but it could happen," he said.
In the situation that something would happen that may endanger residents living within either the 2 or 5 mile radius of each industrial site, EOC staff would know exactly who to begin evacuating and how to proceed in doing so.
"Inside that area we have identified any vulnerable population besides the general population," Tastet said. "So we know all of the special needs persons that are in there, where every daycare agency is, every church, high population centers, whatever."
Perry said the EOC compiles information on local residents through a postage paid information card.
"Everyone gets a brochure every year from Waterford 3 and every year there is a postage paid card that comes back to us. That tells us that ‘Ron’ lives alone, he is hard of hearing and can’t drive and needs assistance," he said. "We renew our database annually. It is constantly being updated."
In addition to mapping the populations in proximity to industrial sites, the EOC participates in drills at industry sites.
"For the last two years we have participated in a site specific drill at one of the industries," Tastet said. "They ran worst case scenario exercises and we participated with them on and off site."
The EOC also, perhaps most importantly, provides information to residents about any incident that occurs.
Included in the EOC’s communications arsenal are automatic phone calls to both land lines and cell phones, text messages, email alerts, the ability to override TV cable channels to announce emergency warnings, an on-site AM radio station, a CB radio and a HAM radio. In addition, the parish’s public information office releases EOC information through Facebook, Twitter and the parish’s website in the event of an incident.
In the end, although Perry admits the parish is vulnerable to potential industrial accidents, he feels the EOC is doing the best job possible in preparing to protect the most people should something happen.
"Pound for pound, size for size, there probably isn’t a better prepared unit of government of this size in a situation of an industrial or major weather event than we are," Perry said. "We’ve got just a lot of stuff going on for us."
|Senior Emergency Coordinator Jason Tastet stands near a map showing a 2-mile and 5-mile blast radius that could occur following a plant explosion.|