BELLE CHASSE, La. - A mandatory evacuation order was lifted Saturday morning for residents near the Sun Drilling Chemical plant in Belle Chasse.
The all-clear was given shortly before 10 a.m. As of 8:00 a.m. the situation had been stabilized and the immediate danger over, according to State Police, which had become the lead investigating agency.
Trooper Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman, said Saturday that the situation was a chemical release and not a fire caused by a lightning strike, as was originally believed.
People were evacuated, Manale said, because of the possibility that a tank involved might explode and cause a more serious leak.
The chemical reaction at the plant near Main and G Streets near the Belle Chasse ferry caused the evacuation of some nearby residents and some government buildings, including the district attorney's office, the sheriff's office and the council building.
Initially, officials said a lightning strike sparked a fire in a chemical tank, releasing chemicals and prompting road closures and voluntary evacuations. Then officials called mandatory evacuations, saying the tank began to swell and they feared an explosion.
But by 10 p.m. officials said the tank wasn’t swelling, and there may not have been a lightning strike or a fire. Instead they said the tank, which contains about 2000 gallons of a hazardous material called divinylbenzene, was having a chemical reaction.
And the smoke seen earlier Friday may have been the result of nitrogen firefighters used to try to cool the tank. But that hasn’t worked and the tank remained volatile, with the possibility of an explosion.
Officials continue to test air quality and have found no dangers. The biggest threat now remains the volatile tank. A crew from Baton Rouge brought a chemical stabilizer, but that neutralizer could take hours to work.
"There is no catastrophic failure right now as was said earlier, but we’re going to do it as a precaution, it’s for public safety to keep this evacuation area clear, until we have the tank stabilized and the chemical reaction is stopped," said Sgt. Joe Piglia of Louisiana State Police.
"Whenever you talk about the possibility of an explosion, you talk in two terms, plumes which is the air and fragments which is when it explodes, the fragements run out. Whenever you set up a safe zone, you take those things into consideration," said Guy Laigast, Plaquemines Parish Emergency Management director.
Statement from Sun Drilling Products Corporation:
Sun Drilling Products Corporation (“Sun”) is currently investigating an incident at its Belle Chasse plant which occurred on August 17th, 2012 at approximately 1:30 p.m.