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Chemical makers mostly unscathed by Hurricane Laura

But lack of electricity and raw materials will keep some facilities off-line for weeks

by Michael McCoy
September 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 34

A photo of BioLab's chemical plant in Westlake, Louisiana, in flames.
Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BioLab's chemical plant in Westlake, Louisiana, caught fire during Hurricane Laura.

With one notable exception, the chemical industry escaped major damage from Hurricane Laura, which hit southwest Louisiana with 150-mile-per-hour winds Aug. 27. But analysts say the lack of power and raw materials will keep many facilities off-line for weeks to come.

The exception is a BioLab chemical plant in Westlake, which caught fire the morning Laura hit. The facility manufactures trichloroisocyanuric acid, a pool-sanitizing chemical, using chlorine gas produced by a nearby firm.

BioLab’s parent company says the fire was brought under control by the afternoon of the following day. The US Chemical Safety Board is investigating.

In nearby Lake Charles, the petrochemical maker Sasol says process equipment at its facility was unharmed, but high winds damaged cooling towers and knocked out high-voltage lines. Restarting the complex will require resumed supply of electricity, industrial gases, and petrochemical feedstocks, according to the firm.

W. R. Grace says its catalyst plant in Lake Charles was largely unhurt and that a restart will require restoration of electrical power. Westlake Chemical says its Lake Charles vinyl raw materials plant “incurred limited physical damage.”

Overall, plant shutdowns in the Lake Charles area took 10–25% of US production capacity off-line for commodities such as chlorine, caustic soda, polyethylene, and ethylene glycol, according to a report from the consulting firm IHS Markit. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 had a more severe impact on output.

IHS says multiple firms sent customers force majeure letters freeing the firms of penalties for late or missed deliveries. Even though facilities are mostly unscathed, companies face personnel shortages and damage to area infrastructure, IHS says. “The Lake Charles area will be dealing with the impacts of the storm for weeks, if not the entire month of September,” the report says.



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