Sinkhole menaces petro plants
Down in the public area of North America, where the black trees grow in the deep swamps that surround the Mississippi River southeast of Baton Rouge, twin explosions rocked the bayous within hours late last week.
The Williams Olefins Chemical Company, a major supplier of the highly volatile chemical propylene, reported 30 injuries when an explosion and fire blasted the plant at Geismar, sending workers scrambling over gates and fences.
At Donaldsonville's CF Industries, a fertilizer plant location a littler further downriver, a nitrogen unloading operation went haywire, causing a large vessel to pop like an overinflated truck tire. The blast was not flammable, but it knocked a man to the ground, costing him his life, and others were severely injured.
It's all part of a multibillion dollar a year cluster of industries that line a stretch of the river the natives call “cancer alley” because there seems to be a large preponderance of the deadly malady amongst the population.
If that's not bad enough, there is evidence that the earth itself is highly unstable because of complications involving a massive salt dome used by Texas Brine Company to inject unwanted fluids generated in drilling operations – such substances as brine, fracturing compounds, drilling mud, acid, cement and sand - deep into the ground in a massive dome made hollow by pumping sea water out or pressurizing the contents and injecting the problematic substances on top of it.
But there is a problem. It appears to some neutral parties, many of them environmentalists who are alarmed with the situation, that the injection well has caused the salt formation to dissolve and a rich vein of petroleum and gas deposits is now bubbling up through the brackish waters of the deep swamps. This caused a sinkhole at Bayou Corne that is 8 acres in diameter and thousands of feet deep.
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Dozens of frothing sites are bubbling with unknown chemicals and gases assumed to be chiefly made up of natural gas, a colorless, odorless and tasteless time bomb that is slowly ticking in the swamps.
A massive explosion of the highly volatile chemicals could trigger an earthquake that would cause the New Madrid fault to split and slip, all the way up the valley of the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois.
Such a catastrophe could be devastating for businesses and families for many thousands of square miles.
The trade-off is stark. CF Industries only last year announced a $2.1 billion expansion of its plant, a move thrilling to the local economic development council, that will create dozens of new jobs. Williams is one of the industry's key players, just one of many companies that dominate the area and make a vital economy throb with vitality.
No one wants a disaster that would damage millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and private property, costing lives, and bringing misery to unknown hundreds of thousands, but at the same time, they don't want to lose jobs and the rosy glow of what could be a long-term period of prosperity.
Petrochemicals are the life's blood of the industry, worth much, much more as by-products of refinement of petroleum than motor fuels.