A Flooded Chemical Plant In Texas Exploded Twice & It May Happen Again

by Joseph D. Lyons

Following damage from Hurricane Harvey, two explosions rocked an Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston Thursday. The storm knocked out power to the plant, something that is necessary to keep the dangerous chemicals refrigerated, the company explained in a statement. Now company officials say the "threat of additional explosion remains."

Harris County Emergency Operations Center notified the owner, Arkema, at about 2 a.m. of the blast and that black smoke was billowing out of the plant, Reuters reported. Arkema, a French chemical manufacturer formally part of Total oil company, stores organic peroxides at the plant. At higher temperatures, they can be extremely volatile and flammable. Because they're stored in more than one place, the other stockpiles risk further blasts.

At this point there is no other option than to just let the plant burn. "The high water that exists on site, and the lack of power, leave us with no way to prevent it," CEO Richard Rowe told Reuters, noting that the black smoke irritates the skin, eyes, and lungs.

There were a number of contingency plans that have already failed. After the primary power supply failed, Arkema moved to two other emergency back-up supplies, and both of those generators failed. Letting the plant burn is the current contingency plan, the company explained:

Organic peroxides are extremely flammable and, as agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out. We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosion remains.

Arkema worked with local authorities to establish an evacuation zone of 1.5 miles from the plant. The fumes from the plant can be unsafe, and already one sheriff's deputy has been taken to the hospital due to inhalation of chemicals, Reuters reported. Another nine drove themselves to the hospital just as a precaution, according to the Harris County Sheriff. They had complained of headaches and dizziness, according to KPRC 2 News in Houston.

The smoke is believed to be "a non-toxic irritant," the sheriff's office explained later, although the evacuation remains in full force. "Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so," the company warned in their statement.

Harvey, now a tropical storm, has moved out of Texas and into Louisiana, but flood waters still remain in the Houston area, and emergency workers will begin to go block by block searching the worst hit areas to make sure no one was left behind. Some 33 have died in the storm.