LeRoyal Ealy with his wife Elaine Claiborne and daughter Lajanaye Ealy, 6, live in Geismar, where he works as an electrician. (Photo by Reid R. Fraiser / The Allegheny Front)
West’s neighbor, LeRoyal Ealy, works as an electrician in the plants. He wasn’t worried about pollution from the explosion.
“I was worried about people in there,” he said.
Ealy said he was once inside a plant when an emergency alarm sounded. “And everyone went running.”
Ealy’s wife, Elaine Claiborne, said she worries what the explosion released into the air.
“It might not hurt us now, but what about later on?” she said.
Ealy said worries about pollution or explosions are just part of the bargain here.
“The plants—that’s where the money’s at,” he said. “It’s good to have them, but there’s a risk in everything.”
‘You do what you got to do’
The chemical plants play a central role in the U.S. economy. And that role is expanding, along with the number and size of plants.
Last year alone, $3.6 billion in new chemical-plant projects were announced in Ascension Parish, said Eades.
A steel mill, a fertilizer plant, and a company that will make biofuel out of chicken fat are all expanding to take advantage of cheap gas, both as a fuel to power furnaces and as a raw material.
One of the biggest projects to use natural gas belongs to Methanex, the world’s largest producer of methanol, a basic chemical made out of natural gas.
The company is dismantling a pair of plants in Chile and moving them to Louisiana.
The activity is bringing a rush of workers to the area, like Joshua Gray, a 38-year-old carpenter from Baton Rouge.
“The economic part of it is outstanding,” he said. “There’s no reason to leave here.
Like a lot of construction workers, Gray has had to scramble to find a place to stay in the area. Most recently, he was staying in his RV in a county fairground. “I say there’s 500 camper-trailers up there,” he said. “Guys driving big trucks. They’re all making money.”
He’d been able to secure a job for his friend, Josh Gibbons. A week before he came to Geismar, Gibbons, 18, was delivering pizzas in Baton Rouge. Now he’s working as a carpenter’s apprentice building concrete forms to support the huge cooling towers and chemical tanks that will sit there one day.
“I’m there for learning really,” Gibbons said.
Ironically, Gray said he thinks the chemical expansion could be bad for the environment, and he’s not really in favor of it.
“But when you need a job,” he said, “you do what you got to do.”
Reid R. Frazier is a reporter with The Allegheny Front, a radio program covering the environment in Pennsylvania. Find more stories at alleghenyfront.org. This work was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.