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Hurricane Harvey

Authorities send mixed messages about toxic fumes following blasts at flooded Texas chemical plant

Residents near the Arkema Plant have been told to stay away from their homes due to a looming chemical explosion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 11:30pm

A Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in floods was rocked by two explosions and set on fire early on Thursday, but local authorities said the resulting smoke presented “no danger to the community at all”.

Arkema said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Centre reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant in Crosby, about 40km northeast of Houston, at about 2am.

At a news conference, Rich Rennard, an Arkema executive, said the remaining chemicals are volatile and that more combustion is likely.

He said the company anticipates that the eight remaining containers “where products are starting to degrade will produce more explosions”.

Earlier, Assistant Harris County Fire Chief Bob Royall said organic peroxides in an articulated truck caught fire not long after midnight and the fire emitted a 12-metre-high flames and black smoke.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez says some deputies suffered irritated eyes from the smoke but insisted it wasn’t dangerous.

“It is not anything toxic,” Gonzalez said. “It is not anything that we feel is a danger to the community at all.”

But Rennard told reporters that the smoke could cause irritation to skin, lungs and eyes and to avoid it.

At a separate news conference in Washington, FEMA administrator Brock Long told reporters that “by all means, the plume is incredibly dangerous”.

Royall said the fire service was not monitoring the fire – “that’s industry’s responsibility” – and that the company hired a contractor to do aerial monitoring of the smoke to see where it was going.

Arkema had warned that a fire was going to happen, saying it was inevitable because of the loss of power in the floods.

“The fire will happen. It will resemble a petrol fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature,” spokeswoman Janet Smith said late on 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.”

Harris County Fire Marshal spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said late on Wednesday that the 2.4km radius was developed in consultation with the US Department of Homeland Security and other experts.

“The facility is surrounded by water right now so we don’t anticipate the fire going anywhere,” she 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 US Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulphur 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 affected over a distance of 37km, according to information compiled by a non-profit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle.

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