GONZALES — Dutchtown High School and three other public schools in Ascension Parish sheltered in place last month after reports of a small leak of toxic phosgene gas from the Rubicon facility in Geismar.
But Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputies say the shelter-in-place orders the afternoon Nov. 11 were an overreaction, given the tiny amount of phosgene that escaped.
Just two weeks earlier, on the morning of Oct. 29, a slightly larger release of phosgene and chlorobenzene vapor from a spilled liquid chemical did not prompt shelter-in-place orders or even public notification. One worker received chemical burns on his hands and went to the hospital for a few hours that day. Three others were monitored but returned to work.
But both incidents, Rubicon has told the state Department of Environmental Quality that the estimated chemical air releases were so small they didn’t escape Rubicon’s 81-acre site off River Road. The releases also didn’t exceed the state’s 1-pound threshold that requires reporting a phosgene air leak to regulatory agencies. Rubicon did anyway.
Phosgene is a colorless gas that smells like freshly cut grass or hay. Phosgene was used as a deadly chemical weapon during World War I, but it’s now important for modern-day production of pharmaceuticals and polyurethanes.
Lt. Col. Bobby Webre, Ascension Parish sheriff’s chief of criminal operations, said that during the Nov. 11 incident, a sheriff’s school resource officer directed school officials to hold off on rolling buses after he heard a dispatcher speak about road blocks.
Webre said a dispatcher read out some of the wrong directives — including road blocks — for the seriousness of the event.
Parish officials have a categorization system for chemical events defined by “levels.” As level numbers increase, the seriousness of the incident increases, and the severity of the precautions rise.
Webre said the incident was rated a Level II, an indication the release remains on site but might have required nearby plants to shelter in place. On Nov. 11, some plants, including Renewable Energy Group, Lion Copolymer, Westlake and others, did shelter as a precaution.
But the roadblocks the dispatcher described are a precaution for a Level III incident, which also can require sheltering in place for the surrounding community, such as at schools a few miles from the plants. Hearing about the road blocks, the resource officer halted the buses and called for the shelter in place, which lasted about 15 minutes.
“It was done with the best of intentions to make sure the school buses didn’t leave,” Webre said. He said the deputies involved received additional training.
On Monday, Mark Dearman, Rubicon plant manager, called both air releases “extremely minor” and said the Sheriff’s Office admitted the Nov. 11 error.
Rubicon told DEQ in a Nov. 17 letter that an estimated 10 ounces of phosgene gas escaped into the air Nov. 11 from tank vents when part of a production unit lost power during maintenance. The company said workers applied plastic sheeting and a vacuum system to the vents to stop the gas.
Dearman said Rubicon works hard to report everything to both the Sheriff’s Office and the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. He pointed out that Rubicon, which is a joint venture of the Huntsman and Chemtura corporations, does not have a large site with a buffer of woods but is near other plants.
He said he warned the parish agencies when reporting ramped up after the Williams Olefins explosion in June 2013 about the responsibility increased reporting will bring.
“How you manage that information is very important to our position in the community and our standing with the citizens in the public,” Dearman said. “We don’t need people showing up on our doorstep because we’re reporting everything and getting penalized for it.”
He added that incidents similar to what happened at Rubicon on Nov. 11 happen “every day, all over” but do not make the news.
Dearman said Rubicon officials know the gas did not escape the plant site Nov. 11 and Oct. 29 because production units and the entire site are ringed with continuously recording air monitors that detect phosgene down to the parts per billion. Workers also wear badges that measure chemical exposure.
Eleven contract workers did report to Rubicon’s first aid station for observation Nov. 11. None received medical treatment or was hospitalized, Rubicon told DEQ.
Dearman added that modern chemical plants have moved away from storing large amounts of phosgene in production units but have set up processes so the gas is consumed instantaneously.