More fires, explosions expected at flooded chemical plant near Houston

Eight more containers at a chemical plant northeast of Houston, Texas are expected to explode after one of them caught fire last night due to refrigeration failure. At least 15 sheriff’s deputies working on site were taken to the hospital.

Refrigeration in almost all containers at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas has failed due to heavy flooding in the Houston area, the company’s spokesman Richard Rennard said on Thursday, adding that he “fully” expected eight other containers to also catch fire, as the volatile chemicals degrade when not kept at a low temperature.

“We believe the safest thing to do is allow the product in the other eight containers to degrade and burn,” Rennard said during a news conference. “We’re not going to put anybody in harm’s way.” Public officials agree with that position, according to Arkema.

Rennard said he didn’t know what the composition of the smoke released by the fire at the plant was. “Toxicity… it’s a relative thing,” he said.

Fifteen sheriff’s deputies who inhaled the fumes had earlier been taken to the hospital and treated for respiratory irritation. They have since been released, according to Texas authorities.

“This is not a massive explosion” but a “container rupture,” said Bob Royall of the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office during the news conference. 

Authorities expect more fires at the plant due to the chemicals’ decomposition, Royall said. “These tanks will catch on fire. They’re going to burn with intensity,” he added. The fire is going to produce black smoke “with carbon particles in it,” Royall added.

Local authorities went door-to-door and evacuated everyone living nearby, and are now securing a perimeter within a 1.5 mile radius, Royall stated.

“At approximately 2 a.m. CDT, we were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of two explosions and black smoke coming from the Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby, Texas,” Arkema wrote in a statement Thursday morning.

The statement went on to say that although the plant followed hurricane preparation protocol, “unprecedented flooding overwhelmed our primary power and two sources of emergency backup power. As a result, we lost critical refrigeration of the products on site. Some of our organic peroxides products burn if not stored at low temperature.”

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“Organic peroxides are extremely flammable and, as agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out,” the statement read.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez stressed during a news conference later that “it wasn’t an explosion, I want to be very clear, it was not an explosion…”

He instead explained the incident as a series of “pops.”

“There were different organic peroxides of different grades that were released and it created a pop in the containers where they were being stored and some gray smoke initially emanated from it and eventually turned into black smoke” after a fire began.

Gonzalez then stated that it is “not anything toxic, it is not anything that we feel is a danger to the community at all…”

Many homes and businesses are within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the facility.

The plant was heavily flooded and has been without electricity since Sunday, Arkema said.

Its employees initially tried to move the volatile chemicals from warehouses into refrigerated containers powered by backup generators, but as the flooding intensified, some of the generators failed and the company decided to evacuate all workers on Tuesday.

Arkema’s Crosby facility is among the Houston-area sites with the highest potential for harm in an incident, according to a 2016 analysis by Texas A&M’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center and the Houston Chronicle.

The plant makes organic peroxides used in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, paints, and other products.

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