2 explosions rock flooded Houston-area chemical plant

- A Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in extensive floods was rocked by two explosions early Thursday, the plant's operator said.

Arkema Inc. said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant at about 2 a.m.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office said in a tweet that a deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution.

The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office said there had been "a series of chemical reactions" at the plant and advised people to stay away from the area.

A spokeswoman for the plant in Crosby, Texas, said late Wednesday that the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators due to the flooding, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. The plant is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Houston.

"The fire will happen. It will resemble a gasoline fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature," spokeswoman Janet Smith told The Associated Press late Wednesday.

There was "no way to prevent" the explosion, chief executive Rich Rowe said earlier Wednesday.

Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making a variety of products including pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

"As the temperature rises, the natural state of these materials will decompose. A white smoke will result, and that will catch fire," Smith said. "So the fire is imminent. The question is when."

Harvey struck Southeast Texas last week, slamming into the coast as a Category 4 hurricane, then weakening to a tropical storm that dumped record amounts of rain on the state, in particular the Houston area. The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday.

The company shut down the Crosby site before Harvey made landfall last week, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind. That group was removed and residents living within a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) radius were told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.

Harris County Fire Marshal spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said late Wednesday that the 1.5-mile radius was developed in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other subject-matter experts.

"The facility is surrounded by water right now so we don't anticipate the fire going anywhere," Moreno said.

The plant falls along a stretch near Houston that features one of the largest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in the country.

Arkema was required to develop and submit a risk management plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas. The plans are supposed to detail the effects of a potential release, evaluate worst-case scenarios and explain a company's response.

In its most recently available submission from 2014, Arkema said potentially 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a distance of 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case scenario, according to information compiled by a nonprofit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle.

But, Arkema added, it was using "multiple layers of preventative and mitigation measures" at the plant, including steps to reduce the amount of substances released, and that made the worst case "very unlikely."

Daryl Roberts, the company's vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, did not dispute that worst-case scenario but said that assumed all the controls in place failed and strong winds blew directly toward Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.

"We have not modeled this exact scenario but we are very comfortable with this 1.5-mile radius," Roberts told the AP. He added that it mostly resembled less serious scenarios that would affect a half-mile radius and a few dozen people.

Roberts said the vessels containing the organic peroxide are equipped with controls to slow the release of chemicals. He said the chemicals will quickly vaporize because of the water, reducing the size and scope of the fire.

Full statement from Arkema CEO Rich Rowe

"The nation is dealing with a natural disaster of enormous magnitude in Texas.  As part of that, Arkema is dealing with a critical issue at our Crosby, Texas facility.Please let me begin by thanking our brave and dedicated employees who safely shut down the site before Hurricane Harvey made landfall.  Like everyone else in the region, these folks were dealing with personal and family issues caused by the storm, yet they performed their tasks in the most professional manner.

"Next, we apologize to everyone impacted by our situation, particularly in combination with the horrible conditions visited upon the region by the hurricane.  We are working closely with many governmental authorities and first responders, and we want to thank them for their guidance, professionalism and dedication.  People are working around the clock under extremely challenging conditions, and the work thus far has been tremendous.  We cherish the strong relationships and support we have received from our neighbors, the  United States Department of Homeland Security, Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency, Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office, Harris County Texas Sheriff’s Office,  Federal Emergency Management Agency, and our elected representatives.

"Our Crosby facility makes organic peroxides, a family of compounds that are used in everything from making pharmaceuticals to construction materials.  But organic peroxides may burn if not stored and handled under the right conditions.  At Crosby, we prepared for what we recognized could be a worst case scenario.  We had redundant contingency plans in place.  Right now, we have an unprecedented 6 feet of water at the plant.  We have lost primary power and two sources of emergency backup power.  As a result, we have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire. The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it.  We have evacuated our personnel  for their own safety.  The federal, state and local authorities were contacted a few days ago, and we are working very closely with them to manage this matter.  They have ordered the surrounding community to be evacuated, too.

"We are setting  up a call center to handle questions from neighbors and others affected, and a claims center to handle financial claims related to Arkema’s Crosby situation.  Also, we’ve reached out to local crisis leaders in Harris County and offered our support.  Once more, we apologize for impacting their lives.  We thank the governmental authorities who are working closely with us for their guidance and professionalism, and will continue to work with them until this situation is resolved."

Arkema Inc. Crosby site information
Source: Arkema

The Arkema Crosby site is located at 18000 Crosby Eastgate Rd, Crosby, TX 77532.  The facility produces liquid organic peroxides that are used primarily in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and polyester reinforced fiberglass, and acrylic resins. There are 57 employees employed at the facility.  The facility is in a rural area with no hospitals, schools, correctional facilities or recreational areas or industrial/commercial areas in the vicinity.  The plant has never experienced flooding of this magnitude before.

Organic peroxides are a family of chemical compounds that are used in the manufacture of plastics and composites.   They are also used in certain skin treatments and pharmaceuticals.    The material naturally degrades and some types can be unstable unless refrigerated.  The flooding in Crosby and the loss of power has disabled the plant’s normal and emergency backup refrigeration systems.

Low-temperature organic peroxides are flammable liquids that naturally degrade and can become unstable unless refrigerated.  If unrefrigerated, the product can rapidly break down and catch fire.  For additional information, please see www.luperox.com/en/safety/

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