The company said it had no time to prevent fires, while some experts believe that the plant should not have been operating at all
A series of chemical reaction, fire and smoke at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas were reported around 2 a.m. on Thursday, August 31st. The city was severely hit by Hurricane Harvey, resulting to major flooding in the area. The Arkema facility, which produces liquid organic peroxides used in the production of plastics, lost its ability to keep the product refrigerated because of to the storm's 40 inches-high floodwaters and power loss. The chemicals, stored in nine containers on site, are extremely vulnerable to heat, so an explosion was likely to happen. Smoke and loud "popping" noises came from two of these containers, but "we totally expect the other containers will start to do the same thing," Arkema executive Richard Rennard told reporters. "Whether it's today, tomorrow, we just don't know. ... It's not over. This is a very serious issue and we know that", he admitted.
It was confirmed that, in agreement with public officials, “the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out.” The good news is that the containers were situated in a "remote area" of the chemical plant and that Arkema doesn't anticipate any other areas or buildings to be affected. According to the company, there was no way to prevent fires, and even though it began taking several measures to safely shut down the plant ahead of time, multiple layers of protection to refrigerate the organic peroxides on site failed.
Nearby residents and authorities were concerned about the smoke’s hazard, as there were controversial opinions in the beginning. "Smoke is a complex mixture of pollutants that can be irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat, that can decrease lung function, and the odors can cause headaches. The smoke from the fire is especially acrid and irritating. Those with heart problems or respiratory conditions, such as asthma or emphysema, may be particularly sensitive," Andrea Morrow, spokesperson of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a statement. "Because the fire will be extinguished as soon as possible, there is minimal risk of long-term health problems", she added. "The smoke is certainly noxious," Rennard concluded, pointing out that "It's not a chemical release that's happening and I want to be clear about that. What we have is a fire". Nevertheless, the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office has urged residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the facility to evacuate the area and to “not return within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so.”
Federal agencies are monitoring the situation
“EPA has emergency response personnel on the scene and the Agency is currently reviewing data received from an aircraft that surveyed the scene early this morning. This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement. “We will consider using any authority we have to further address the situation to protect human health and the environment.” The U.S. Chemical Safety Board also said it "is aware of the situation."
The next day for the area
There are at least three other plants in the region that produce the same chemicals, and 500 or more that produce various chemical compounds, many of them hazardous. Lots of them face challenges now, as sinking tank roofs and loss of power have been reported, resulting to the release of millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals into the air over the past weeks. There will be more challenges in the coming weeks and months as the floodwaters recede and closed facilities operate again, while it is estimated that even some equipment might not be in safe condition.
The flooded Arkema plant in Crosby, TX. CreditAdrees Latif/Reuters
A fire burns at the flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif