HOUSTON (AP) — At least 2 tons of highly unstable chemicals used in such products as plastics and paint exploded and burned at a flood-crippled plant near Houston, sending up a plume of acrid black smoke that stung the eyes and lungs.
The blaze that began early Thursday at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant burned out around midday, but emergency crews continued to hold back because of the danger that eight other trailers containing the same compound could blow, too.
Additional small blasts, or "pops," were heard coming from the plant Thursday night, but it wasn't clear if they were caused by exploding containers or pressure releasing from valves, Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Harris County fire marshal, said Friday.
No serious injuries were reported from the initial explosions or fire. But the blasts added a new hazard to Harvey's aftermath and raised questions about the adequacy of the company's master plan to protect the public in the event of an emergency in the flood-prone Houston metropolitan area of 5.6 million people.
"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 Nicholas Ashford, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Texas environmental regulators called the health risks minimal in Crosby, but they urged residents downwind to stay indoors with the windows closed to avoid inhaling the smoke.
Arkema warned earlier in the week that an explosion of organic peroxides stored at the plant was imminent because Harvey's floodwaters engulfed the backup generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the compounds from degrading and catching fire.
All employees had been pulled from the plant before the blast, and up to 5,000 people living within 1 ½ miles (2.4 kilometers) had been warned to evacuate on Tuesday. That buffer was still in place Friday, though it wasn't known how many people may have remained in their homes.
The first two early-morning explosions blew open a trailer containing the chemicals, lighting up the sky with 30- to 40-foot (9- to 12-meter) flames in the small farm and ranching community of Crosby, 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Houston, authorities said. Aerial footage showed a trailer carcass, its sides melted, burning in a flooded lot.
The Texas environmental agency called the smoke "especially acrid and irritating" and said it can impair breathing and inflame the eyes, nose and throat. Fifteen sheriff's deputies complained of respiratory irritation. They were examined at a hospital and released.
The plant is along a corridor near Houston that contains one of the biggest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in the country.
Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the agency had not received any reports of trouble at other chemical plants in the hurricane-stricken zone.
Moreno, the fire marshal's spokeswoman, said Friday that sheriff's deputies had just completed a flyover of the plant, but she didn't know yet what they observed. She said she didn't know how high water levels were at the plant or if flooding that has reached about 7 feet in nearby neighborhood has receded.
Texas A&M chemical safety expert Sam Mannan said the risk management plan that Arkema was required by state and federal law to develop did not address how it would deal with power and refrigeration failures or flooding.
A 2016 analysis he did with university colleagues ranked the Crosby plant among the 70 or so facilities with the biggest potential to cause harm in greater Houston, based on such factors as the type and amount of chemicals and the population density.
Arkema, which is headquartered in France, did not reply to calls about the plant's contingency planning. Rich Rennard, an Arkema executive, said Thursday that the chemical compounds were transferred to refrigerated containers after power was lost. But he said those containers failed too, causing the chemicals in one unit to burn. Rennard said more explosions were expected from the remaining containers.
Arkema officials did not directly notify local emergency managers of the generator failure, Moreno said. It came, instead, by way of the plant's workers, who told the Crosby Volunteer Fire Department about it when they were rescued during the storm, she said.
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 company at least three times for a total of about $27,000, some of which was deferred pending corrective actions. Arkema denied the allegations.
During the last five years of compliance monitoring at the plant, state officials found five Clean Air Act-related deviations and two deviations from federal requirements on waste management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show.
In June 2006, the company 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.
The biggest penalty, about $20,000, came in December 2011 after the commission found Arkema had failed to keep thermal oxidizers, used to decompose hazardous gases, at high enough temperatures over the course of several months.
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.
Records obtained by the AP show Arkema had kept using some equipment even when safety systems weren't working properly, and didn't inspect or test it as recommended. In one unit, the company also didn't ensure equipment there was safe or keep employees up to date on their training.
Arkema is also embroiled in a series of lawsuits stemming from a deadly accident involving one of its contracts at a rail yard in New Orleans.
Arkema is defending itself in federal court after one worker died and two others were seriously injured when they were assigned to clean the inside of a rail car tank that had been filled with a harmful chemical. The men, who were working for a contractor with a long history of safety problems, were not wearing respirators and collapsed almost immediately, according to lawsuits filed by the survivors and the family of the man who died.
In court documents, Arkema denied responsibility for the accident, saying it had trusted its contractor to run the operation safely.
Dunklin reported from Dallas. Associated Press writers Emily Schmall in Dallas; Michael Biesecker, Matthew Daly and Seth Borenstein in Washington; Luke Sheridan in New York and Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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