Last Modified: Friday, August 17, 2012 10:33 PM
BELLE CHASSE (AP) — Plaquemines Parish officials said a fire started by a lightning strike broke out at a chemical facility Friday and covered parts of Belle Chasse in smoke, prompting a voluntary evacuation of several government buildings and forcing residents to stay indoors to avoid inhaling pollutants.
The fire started at a warehouse of the Sun Drilling plant near downtown Belle Chasse at about 1:30 p.m. and was largely under control shortly after 3 p.m., parish officials said. But authorities later Friday called for a mandatory evacuation near the plant after a storage tanker containing divinylbenzene inside the warehouse began to swell and could possibly explode.
WWL-TV reports the tank began to swell shortly after officials said most of the previous evacuations had been lifted as smoke began to move and dissipate. A state police spokesman said the tank is heating up from a chemical reaction and the smoke may have been from nitrogen used to cool it down. A chemical stabilizer is en route from Baton Rouge, and residents will be evacuated for at least a few more hours.
The Coast Guard closed a portion of the Mississippi River from mile marker 74 to mile marker 78 to all vessels as well.
"We closed the river as a precautionary measure to protect mariners," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Russ Bowen, chief of response for Sector New Orleans.
Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Deputy Chief Terry Rutherford told The Times-Picayune the mandatory evacuation includes residences, the parish courthouse annex and sheriff's office facilities. It affects between 200 and 300 people. A shelter was opened at Belle Chasse High School
Parish President Billy Nungesser said there were no early reports of injuries. Nungesser said clouds of smoke crossed over parts of Belle Chasse but indicated the pollutants were not considered a health threat.
"It burns your eyes a little bit," he told WWL-TV. "It makes it hard to breathe a bit."
The Department of Environmental Quality's air-quality monitoring operations are on-going, said spokesman Rodney Mallett.
Rodger Wheaton, a lawyer for the company, said the company was investigating how the fire started and what chemicals may have been released. He said lightning is suspected of igniting the fire.
Residents were told to turn off their air conditioning and to stay indoors while the fire blazed. Parts of Highway 23 were temporarily closed as was a ferry across the Mississippi River at Belle Chasse.