A large explosion and fire tore through the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geismar,Louisiana, on Thursday, causing an unknown number of injuries, and authorities ordered people within two miles (3 km) to remain indoors.
The blast hit at 8:37 a.m. EDT (13:37 GMT) at the plant along the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge and about 60 miles (100 km) up river from New Orleans, parent group Williams Cos.said in a statement.
"Emergency shut-down valves have been closed. The unit is isolated," the company said.
Images on the Times-Picayune news website showed a large ball of flame and a thick column of smoke coming from the plant.
Six burn victims were taken to hospitals by helicopter, WAFB television reported, citing theIberville Office of Emergency Preparedness. There were no immediate reports of fatalities.
Authorities ordered people within a 2-mile (3-km) radius to remain in their homes, in part because of the smoke, said Lester Kenyon, a spokesman for Ascension Parish. Roads leading to the plant were closed, the company said.
The U.S. Coast Guard said traffic on the Mississippi River remained unaffected.
The plant produces approximately 1.3 billion pounds of ethylene and 90 million pounds of polymer grade propylene, according to the Williams website. These are used in the petrochemical process to make plastics.
Williams operates the plant and holds an 83 percent ownership interest in the Geismar facility, it said.
Shares in Williams Cos. fell as much as 3 percent in early trading after the reports and were down about 1 percent shortly after midday.
With massive equipment operating under intense pressure and high heat, the petrochemical industry is particularly prone to occasional fires and explosions, most of which are quickly brought under control with limited injury or damage.
Southern Louisiana is home to a large share of the country's petrochemical facilities and has seen at least two other blasts in the past two years.
Pressure on the industry to improve safety has increased since a blast at the Texas City refinerykilled 15 people in 2005, among the worst such industrial accidents in decades.
A blast last month at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 14 people has also sharpened attention on handling of volatile chemicals.
Video Credit: Reuters
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