On August 14th, the Emergency Response Team deployed to Port Allen and downtown Baton Rouge following the August 12th butadiene release in West Baton Rouge Parish. This colorless, flammable gas was released from Intercontinental Terminal Company, which is owned by ExxonMobil, in Port Allen, LA after lightning reportedly struck a storage container. Louisiana State Police reported no injuries, but the facility was evacuated and the portions of Louisiana 1 and North River Road surrounding ITC were closed for several hours. Across the Mississippi River in downtown Baton Rouge several offices self-evacuated after the mild gasoline-like scent of the chemical reached the area. In a report on Nola.com Sgt. Slaton with the Louisiana State Police stated “downtown Baton Rouge offices started evacuating when the smell got out. (It was) all voluntary.” While the Louisiana State Police did not issue any mandatory evacuation orders for residents or businesses in the area, there was a shelter-in-place recommendation for those who work and live in the downtown Baton Rouge area. Despite the recommendation for residents to stay indoors, the state police assured that it was still okay to go outside as needed, according to a report from WAFB news in Baton Rouge.
The Emergency Response Team interviewed 74 residents in both Port Allen and across the river in downtown Baton Rouge to get a sense of what people heard, smelled and felt following the butadiene accident. Of those 74 interviewees, 19 percent were unaware of the shelter-in-place recommendation, or did not find out about it until it had been lifted. In addition to the surveys, there were 20 reports of the incident to the iWitness Pollution map. Of these 20 reports, 35 percent were not reports about the pollution itself, but rather reports of frustration from not hearing about the accident or the shelter-in-place recommendation. Thirteen percent of the 74 respondents reported emotional or mental health affects as a result of the accident, whereas 7 percent of the 74 respondents said that they were angry or upset that they were not properly notified of the incident by authorities. East Baton Rouge Mayor, Kip Holden echoed this frustration stating that his emergency crews were not getting official word from the agencies at the scene. This accident has proved to be a learning experience for many. ExxonMobil representatives state that they activated their emergency procedures for mutual aid as soon as they learned about the accident. Louisiana State Police affirmed that their job is to get information out to the public as soon as possible, and that’s what they did. However, it is clear that there was a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line as evidenced by reports to the iWitness map, survey results and testimony from the mayor himself. Ideally, petrochemical facilities would be accident free. However, accidents do occur, and citizen safety should be a top priority. Petrochemical facilities, along with state and local officials and first responders must improve emergency procedures so that everyone receives timely and consistent information.