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Hazardous chemical found in water after Dow plant explosion

Dow Chemical’s industrial complex in Plaquemine, three days after a fire and multiple explosions erupted at the plant on July 14, 2023.
Wesley Muller
Louisiana Illuminator
Dow Chemical’s industrial complex in Plaquemine, three days after a fire and multiple explosions erupted at the plant on July 14, 2023.

Water sampling after the recent explosion and fire at the Dow Chemical facility in Plaquemine found elevated levels of the hazardous compound ethylene oxide. But when the same sample was tested at a separate lab, it showed virtually no contamination, according to a preliminary incident report from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

The LDEQ report said the July 14 fire involved five “bullet tanks,” which are large, elongated storage containers typically used to hold fuels or other volatile chemicals. Dow’s emergency crews were working to isolate the tanks they believed were fueling the fire, the report stated.

Deluge systems to extinguish the fire flowed over a containment area and into a canal that leads to the Dow facility’s Mississippi River outfall.

LDEQ inspector Miranda Brengartner noted in the report that water sampling a day after the fire showed ethylene oxide levels at 39 parts per million (ppm) and then 0.1 ppm when retested at a different on-site laboratory.

Ethylene oxide is used to make a broad range of consumer and industrial products, including detergents and disinfectants. It is usually refrigerated when transported because it is volatile and flammable at room temperature. It is also a proven carcinogen in humans who are exposed to excessive amounts.
The maximum safe concentration of ethylene oxide in water is 41 ppm, according to the American Chemistry Council.

Brengartner didn’t specify in the LDEQ report where the water samples were taken from at the Dow facility and provided no explanation for the discrepancy between results from the two labs. Dow is supposed to provide LDEQ with the water sample data and have a third party conduct further testing, according to the report.

It was about 9:30 p.m. July 14 when a fire broke out and several explosions erupted at the facility’s glycol unit. Video footage captured by passersby and surveillance cameras showed a large mushroom cloud and fireball illuminating the night sky. Dow’s emergency crews continued to battle fires well into the morning of July 16.

Dow’s corporate communications staff has repeatedly assured the public air monitoring has detected nothing hazardous to the community but said nothing about water sampling. The very short preliminary incident report is so far the only official documentation LDEQ has made available to the public.

LDEQ spokesperson Gregory Langley said Dow is still conducting engineering analysis to determine what chemicals were released and in what quantity. He referred additional questions to Dow.

Dow’s Public Affairs Director Stacey Gautreau responded to an email from the Illuminator with a link to an updated post the company published on its Facebook page Sunday, but the post contained no new information.

“We continue assessment and recovery efforts following the July 14 event in Plaquemine,” the post reads. “To ensure the safety of our employees, contract partners and community, we are continuing air monitoring on site and in the community. Unimpacted Dow units remain in operation.”