Inmates at a state prison in Avoyelles Parish say smoke from a massive tire fire burning 300 yards away choked them for several days, causing headaches and strained breathing before they were evacuated.
But state prison officials say the smoke wasn't a major problem at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center until the wind shifted, which is when they moved to evacuate the 1,500 inmates.
The fire at the shuttered Cottonport Monofill site started after a "loud explosion" on Jan. 16, and lasted for 10 to 11 days before it was put out, state authorities said. It burned through many of the tens of thousands of unprocessed tires and chopped-up tire bits.
The State Department of Corrections evacuated the prison on Jan. 20.
Several inmates at the prison say smoke had breached the facility days before.
"We stayed at the prison for four days breathing smoke," said inmate Robert Burke. "I don't know if it is from corona(virus) or the fire, but I've been getting bad headaches since I've been back."
Ken Pastorick, DOC spokesperson, denied the smoke was a a major problem before the Jan. 20 wind shift.
"The Department takes very seriously any incident that might affect the prison and those who work or live inside it, and this incident was no different," Pastorick said. "Evacuating an entire prison is very rare, not something to take lightly, and must be fully warranted. Employees effectively and efficiently executed the evacuation and return of prisoners without incident."
Pastrorick said prison officials leapt into action to prepare a potential evacuation plan as soon as the blaze began, so they could be ready if the fire "posed an imminent danger to the staff, prisoners or the institution."
State air quality monitoring shows a mixed picture of how bad the smoke was before and during the evacuation.
It does suggest that some smoke entered the prison. At brief times on Jan. 17, the air quality near the prison was bad enough that it would have violated federal air pollution limits if had continued at that level for a 24-hour period, the monitoring shows.
But the average air quality on those days did not exceed the federal 24-hour standard, the monitoring shows.
The fire, the subsequent cleanup and the risk of a new fire sparking from the tires remaining at the recycling complex have been serious enough that Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown declared a two-month emergency on Feb. 8 as regulators figure out who is responsible for the cleanup.
State fire investigators are still probing the cause of the blaze.
'Like something in a horror movie'
Multiple inmates described smoke and fumes flooding the prison before the evacuation began.
Inmate Calvin English said the men were exposed to smoke from the early days after the fire ignited. They began to suffer from symptoms such as shortened breath, headaches and chest pains, he said.
Bishop Dubroc, another inmate, said prison officials closed the facility's windows soon after the fire started in efforts to block out the smoke that had already flooded the facility.
But the smoke — which he said smelled like gas — still entered through vents and door cracks, he said. Inmates wrapped sheets, towels, blankets and t-shirts around their noses and mouths to stop from choking, according to Dubroc.
"The air was polluted with toxins causing us to cough and have a hard time breathing," inmate Durrelle Bowens said.
Inmate Charles Jackson reported that, when he first woke up to the fire, "the smoke and the sky was so black that I thought that the world was coming to an end because of the lack of visibility."
"It was like something in a horror movie," he said.
As the smoke grew worse over the following days, he said it became harder to breathe and see. During the evacuation, men in his van were throwing up from inhaling the fumes, he said.
Jacolby Jarvis, another inmate, said he slept wearing a mask, normally used to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it did little to block "the smell of burning rubber."
"The smoke was so strong it choked me," he wrote.
When he made it to a new facility after the evacuation, he said he "experienced shortness of breath, my chest hurting, and vomiting."
Pastorick noted "a handful of prisoners" who reported health problems were "examined and cleared by the prison’s medical staff." Officials have also "not received any complaints or concerns from Raymond Laborde employees who worked at the prison for the duration of the fire," he said.
When the smoke arrived
The various pollutants DEQ found in the smoke can cause problems breathing, heart trouble, and even nervous system problems, federal regulators say.
In addition to the fine particles, a variety of gases came from the fire, including methane and other hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. All can be harmful at high enough concentrations.
The question is when the inmates were exposed, and to how much.
Brown’s emergency declaration says a shift in the wind on Jan. 20 caused a significant worsening of air at the state prison.
“In addition, the smoke generated by the fire was so significant that visibility was greatly impaired near the vicinity of the Site,” the order says.
Though Brown’s order cites worsening of air on Jan. 20 as a key reason for the evacuation, DEQ air monitoring data show some of the worst pollution detected near the prison was three days earlier, on Jan. 17.
At the worst, single air measurements on that day found the concentrations of the tiniest particles were nearly three times the standard for a 24-hour period.
But, for the 24-hour series of air measurements needed to calculate safety levels on Jan. 17, regulators found that the concentration of tiny particles was well within safety standards.
Most of the gases were detected in trace amounts that federal and state regulators deem safe for short-term exposures, monitoring data show. Some hydrocarbons emitted by the fire don’t have any set safety level, but DEQ officials deemed those emissions from the fire elevated.
The measurements were obtained by DEQ's Mobile Air Monitoring Lab, or MAML, a vehicle outfitted with sensors that responds to pollution emergencies or other sites of concern.
Measurements show the particle concentrations declined on Jan. 18 and 19 but appeared to pick back up somewhat early on Jan. 20 before mechanical problems with the MAML halted data collection, DEQ officials said.
DEQ brought in another mobile lab to the same measuring spot and found reduced emissions on the last part of Jan. 20.
Though the 24-hour average never came close to exceeding federal safety standards, single measurements during the day did on a handful of occasions.
Since fire was extinguished, the inmates have returned to RLCC after being transferred to other state prisons.