Orion tank fire erupts

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 9, 2001


PHOTO 1: An eruption of fire bursts from a gasoline storage tank on the east plant of Orion Refining Corp. Thursday afternoon after a bolt of lightning struck it. (Staff Photos by Amy Szpara) NORCO – A gasoline storage tank explosion rocked Orion Refining Thursday, in the midst of this week’s lingering Tropical Storm Allison rainfall. The parish’s emergency operations center, a beehive of activity since the appearance of Allison Tuesday, shifted into a new level of high activity with the Orion fire two days later. Lightning struck a 6-inch sheet of gasoline Thursday at 12:30 p.m., which had moved atop the floating roof of a storage tank, according to Orion spokeswoman Joy Patin. At the time, the tank was filled to its 10-million-gallon capacity. With all the heavy rain associated with Allison, water had built up atop the floating tank, causing it to buckle slightly with the weight. When the roof buckled, gasoline inside the tank was able to slip on top. PHOTO 2: River Road traffic continued to move for most of Thursday during Orion’s gasoline fire but was closed from time to time, along with Airline Drive. Inset is Sgt. Danny Franklin of Louisiana State Police Troop B speaking to reporters. (Staff Photo by Leonard Gray) Orion noticed the problem during the early-morning hours Thursday, prompting them to begin pumping gasoline out of the tank to stabilize its contents. Orion firefighting personnel and equipment were placed on site as a precautionary action, though they hoped to pump the gasoline from the tank before more storming occurred. They were able to pump out 20,000 barrels an hour, said Patin, who added that they were making fast progress until 12:30 p.m. Then, when a new line of thunderstorms swept across Norco, a lightning bolt struck the gasoline, and set off the fire. “The worst thing that could’ve happened, happened,” commented Sgt. Danny Franklin of Louisiana State Police Troop B. PHOTO 3: Kavon Mitchell joins in on the protest for relocation Friday morning. (Staff Photos by Amy Szpara) Since Orion already had fire crews and Louisiana State Police hazardous material response personnel on site, they began working to extinguish the fire immediately. No one was injured, Patin added. All plant personnel were accounted for, she continued. With the fire’s breakout, removing the gasoline went on. As of 3 p.m., however, Orion was advised to stop the removal to prevent a vapor buildup within the tank at the 150,000-gallon level, roughly half the tank. Meanwhile, fire crews assisted by emergency response personnel from Motiva Refinery, Shell Norco Chemical, Dow and other major industries, joined forces to cool down the tank, as well as other nearby tanks. Williams Fire & Hazard Control, a fire-fighting specialist company, also sent crews from both Houma and Baton Rouge to assist in containing the fire. Training Specialties, another fire specialty group, also came in to bring addition firefighting equipment. At the same time, Orion safety personnel with air-quality monitors took to the streets in nearby Norco and New Sarpy, and they confirmed there were no high-emission levels of hazardous material. All non-essential plant personnel were sent home. The tank is located on the East Plant, which is closer to New Sarpy. Both River Road and Airline Drive were shut down in the sections nearest the fire, but both were reopened by mid-afternoon Thursday. Only Prospect Avenue, passing through the plant, remained closed. Standing at the Airline Highway road block was frazzled Virginia Denton, a New Sarpy resident who needed to get home to her ailing husband. Her husband, who has a heart condition, was home alone and she didn’t like to leave him for long. Remembering the Shell explosion of May 1988, she said the fire worried her. “There are a lot of woods near my house,” she said. “That concerns me.” Police on both sides of the plant turned cars away until they were given the word that it was okay to send people through. Destrehan High School was opened as a shelter for the convenience of any residents who felt uncomfortable in their homes, though no evacuation was ever ordered. Instead, residents were advised to shelter in place, said parish spokesperson Steve Sirmon. Just before 3 a.m. the fire was extinguished by using foam to smother the flames, according to Patin. If the foam had not worked, it may have taken more than a day to put the fire out. “At this point, we are continuing to pump the remainder of the gasoline out,” she said. The fire was contained to the one tank at all times, said Patin, though there was concern that the heat would get to two other nearby tanks. “The tank was well within the site,” she said, adding that there was no threat to residents. Numerous outraged citizens of Norco and New Sarpy demonstrated at the entrance to Orion on River Road Friday at 11:30 a.m. Orion spokespersons, including Patin, met the concerned residents and answered questions. Local businesses and the employees were also concerned about the fire. “It makes me nervous,” said Carla Wells of Rosie’s Take-Out in New Sarpy. “Everybody’s been nervous since Shell blew up.”