HOUSTON – Thick black smoke and towering orange flames shot up Friday from a flooded Houston-area chemical plant where highly unstable compounds blew up a day earlier after losing refrigeration.
It was the second day that flames and smoke could be seen at the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas. Arkema says Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed its backup generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the organic peroxides from degrading and catching fire. After Thursday’s fire, Arkema had said it had eight more containers that could blow up.
The Environmental Protection Agency and local officials said an analysis of the smoke that came from the plant early Thursday showed no reason for alarm. No serious injuries were reported. EPA spokesman David Gray said the agency was sending its surveillance aircraft through the area again Friday night to monitor any airborne toxic chemicals and “will have information shortly.”
A 1 1/2 mile buffer around the plant was established Tuesday when Arkema Inc. warned that chemicals kept there could explode. Employees had been pulled, and up to 5,000 people living nearby were warned to evacuate. Officials remain comfortable with the size of the buffer, Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Fire Marshal Office, said Friday evening.
Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith reiterated statements executives made earlier Friday that the remaining containers of organic peroxides would explode and that the safest course of action is to simply “let these fires happen and let them burn out.”
Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed backup generators and cut off the refrigeration necessary to keep the organic peroxides, used in such products as plastics and paints, from degrading and catching fire.
Arkema officials did not directly notify local emergency managers of the generator failure, Moreno said.
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Arkema’s president and chief executive, Rich Rowe, apologized and said he was sending a team of employees to Crosby to figure out how best to assist locals.
“I realize this is not a situation that we can help remedy overnight,” he said.
Early Thursday, two blasts blew open a trailer containing at least 2 tons of material, sending up a plume of black smoke and flames 30- to 40-foot high in the tiny town of Crosby, about a half-hour from Houston, authorities said. The Texas environmental agency called the smoke “especially acrid and irritating” and said it can impair breathing and inflame the eyes, nose and throat.
Questions persisted Friday about the adequacy of Arkema’s master plan to protect the public in the event of an emergency in flood-prone Houston, a metropolitan area of about 6 million people.
The plant is along a corridor with one of the nation’s greatest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants. A 2016 analysis led by Texas A&M University researchers identified Arkema’s facility as posing one of the region’s biggest risks, based on such factors as the type and amount of chemicals and the population density.
“This should be a wake-up call (for) all kinds of plants that are storing and converting reactive chemicals in areas which have high population densities,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert Nicholas Ashford.
In accident plans Arkema submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, executives said a hurricane and a power loss were potential hazards. Yet the plans, which were supposed to address worst-case scenarios, didn’t explain what Arkema would do if faced with either.
Executives also acknowledged Friday that they didn’t have materials at the plant that could have neutralized the organic peroxides.
Instead, workers were forced to scramble and move the chemicals away from floodwaters after buildings were engulfed and power was lost. Workers transferred the compounds to refrigerated containers, but those failed, too, causing Thursday’s fire.
Arkema officials had not directly notified local emergency managers of the generator failure, said Moreno. The plant’s workers told the Crosby Volunteer Fire Department about it when they were rescued during the storm, she said.
Despite receding waters, Arkema vice president Daryl Roberts said he didn’t think refrigeration systems would restart, but the organic peroxides were a safe distance from other hazardous chemicals.
After days of questions about what was in its chemical inventory, the company posted a list of them on its website Friday, though not the amounts on hand. Asked why it hadn’t shared the information sooner, Rowe said, “We’re managing our way through a crisis.”
State and federal regulators have cited Arkema for safety and environmental violations at the Crosby plant dating back more than a decade, records show.
Texas’ environmental commission penalized the plant at least three times. In June 2006, Arkema had failed to prevent unauthorized emissions during a two-hour warehouse fire. Records show a pallet of organic peroxide was poorly stored, resulting in the blaze, and more than a ton of volatile organic compounds were discharged.
More recently, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in February fined Arkema nearly $110,000 – later reduced to just over $90,000 – because of 10 serious safety violations found during an inspection.
“We don’t have a perfect record, we understand that,” Arkema’s Rowe said. “We strive to get better at every turn and will continue to do so.”
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