Thursday 19 October 2017

Second blast and fire at Texas chemical plant flooded by Hurricane Harvey

Smoke rises from the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, near Houston (KTRK via AP)
Smoke rises from the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, near Houston (KTRK via AP)
Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey surround homes in Port Arthur, Texas (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Thick black smoke and towering orange flames shot into the sky after two trailers of highly unstable compounds blew up at a flooded Houston-area chemical plant, the second fire there in two days.

Officials at Arkema in Crosby said Harvey's floodwater engulfed the plant's back-up generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the organic peroxides, used in such products as plastics and paints, from degrading and catching fire.

Arkema executive Richard Rennard said two containers caught fire on Friday evening, and six others are also at risk.

Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith said the company expects the rest of the containers will ignite "within a matter of days".

Preliminary analysis of data captured by Environmental Protection Agency surveillance aircraft on Friday did not show high levels of toxic airborne chemicals, agency spokesman David Gray said. No serious injuries were reported in the last two days as a result of the fires.

The height and colour of the flames from the plant on Friday suggested incomplete combustion of the organic peroxides, Texas A&M chemical safety expert Sam Mannan said.

With complete combustion, he said, the byproduct is carbon dioxide and water, posing about the same amount of risk as standing too close to a campfire. But incomplete combustion implies something else is burning.

The fire burned not just the organic peroxides but also the plastic packaging, insulation, and the materials used to construct the trailers, Ms Smith said.

Daryl Roberts, the company's vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the floodwater inundating the plant would cause any toxins produced by the fire to quickly vaporise. By Friday, the water had receded but Ms Smith could not comment on whether that had changed the calculation of risk.

A 1.5-mile (2.4km) buffer zone around the plant was established on Tuesday when Arkema warned that chemicals kept there could explode.

Employees were evacuated, and up to 5,000 people living nearby were warned to leave their homes.

Officials remain comfortable with the size of the exclusion zone, Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Fire Marshal Office, said on Friday evening.

Ms Smith reiterated statements executives made earlier on Friday that the safest course of action was simply to "let these fires happen and let them burn out".

Arkema officials did not directly notify local emergency managers of the generator failure, Ms Moreno said. Instead it came by way of the plant's ride-out crew, who told the Crosby Volunteer Fire Department about it when they were rescued during the storm, she said.

In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Arkema president and chief executive Rich Rowe apologised and said he was sending a team of employees to Crosby to figure out how best to assist locals.

"I realise this is not a situation that we can help remedy overnight," he said.

A total of 42 people have so far been confirmed dead a week after Harvey slammed into the middle Texas Gulf coast.

Harris County is home to Houston and has so far accounted for 28 deaths from the storm.

President Donald Trump has sent politicians a 7.9 billion dollar (£6.1 billion) request for an initial downpayment for Harvey relief and recovery efforts.

The request, expected to be swiftly approved by Congress, would add 7.4 billion dollars (£5.7 billion) to rapidly dwindling Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid coffers and 450 million dollars (£347 million) to finance disaster loans for small businesses.

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