Braithwaite neighbors speak out after report shows potential massive chemical spill


Posted on September 13, 2012 at 9:39 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 14 at 11:41 AM

Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @mhernandezwwl

NEW ORLEANS -- As he looks over the destruction of his own home, Jesse Schaffer remembers the harrowing days after Hurricane Isaac, when he rescued dozens of people by boat in the Braithwaite area.

And he can't forget what he experienced when he passed the Stolthaven storage facility.

"The first time I passed there I smelt smells like I had never smelt in this area before," said Schaffer. "I know there was something that wasn't supposed to be there."

About two weeks later, Stolthaven filed a report with the National Response Center, showing 191,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into flood waters. But company officials now say that's not necessarily the case.

"The intent of this report was to inform NRC of the worst-case scenario if all of the product stored was released as a result of Hurricane Isaac," said Stolthaven spokesman Darrell Wilson in a statement Thursday. "Due to certain tanks shifting, it was not immediately possible to confirm the exact quantity of materials held in these tanks."

Now, neighbors are left wondering whether flood waters pushed chemicals in their homes.

"To know now the amount of chemicals they possibly could have leaked and how serious and dangerous that it is, they were so nonchalant about it from the time the storm hit until now," said Jill Baumy, whose Braithwaite Park home was flooded to the roof. "Now to find out that it could be very serious side effects from whatever did leak and the amount that they did leak, my property could be contaminated."

Parts of Hwy. 39 in Braithwaite remained shut down Thursday as authorities continued clearing the damage at the Stolthaven storage facility.

Company officials said at least three tanks leaked during Isaac. Two contained base oil. The third contained a chemical called octene, said Steve Turchi, regional director for Stolthaven Terminals. Turchi said 218 metric tons of the substance leaked.

In addition, more than 140 rail cars went off the tracks, 80 of which carried hazardous materials. By Thursday, 132 of the cars had been placed back on the rails.

Turchi noted none of the rail cars had leaked. He said the company moved a large number of rail cars before the storm, but did not have enough time to move all of them. He noted it could have been done in a day.

Turchi said the plant remains on generator power while state police HazMat teams, among other agencies, work to clear the damage.

Meanwhile, local officials said they're being kept in the dark about the impact of a potential spill.

"It's like to me some unanswered questions. Some tight lipped is going on. Tell me what's happening so I can tell my people," said Percy Griffin, District 1 councilman in Plaquemines Parish.

Stolthaven officials said there's no evidence of any off site release so far. But the Department of Environmental Quality is waiting on final results from soil and surface water samples before they can say for sure.

Thursday, authorities handed neighbors like Baumy a letter from Stolthaven outlining plans to test soil near resident's homes. They said collecting the samples could take about an hour, and results would return within one or two weeks.

"I just hope that the full story comes out, that's the main concern. What did leak, how much leaked, and not to cover up anything," said Schaffer.

Initially, an evacuation order was in place for those who live within a half mile of the plant. Now, traffic is allowed past the plant between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. DEQ said Stolthaven could face fines if it's discovered the facility didn't take the proper precautions.

--- Some images in this story courtesy: Gulf Restoration Network & Louisiana Bucket Brigade