THERE HAVE BEEN two explosions at a flooded chemical plant in a small town outside of Houston.
Black smoke has been seen rising from the Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, Houston TV station Fox 26 is reporting.
“At approximately 2 am (7am Irish time), we were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of two explosions and black smoke coming from the Arkema Inc plant in Crosby, Texas,” the company said in a statement.
The French company that owns the plant had earlier warned that it was poised to explode.
The Arkema Inc plant in Crosby, Texas, about 40 kilometres northeast of Houston, lost power and its backup generators amid Hurricane Harvey’s days-long deluge, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that became volatile as the temperature rises.
Chief executive Rich Rowe had said yesterday that there was “no way to prevent” the explosion.
Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials.
The company shut down the plant before Hurricane Harvey made landfall last week, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind. That group was removed and residents within 2.4 kilometres of the plant were told to evacuate on Tuesday after the plant lost power.
Harris County Fire Marshall spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said the 2.4-kilometre radius was developed in consultation with the US Department of Homeland Security and other subject-matter experts.
“It’s a concerning situation, yes,” Moreno said.
“But the facility is surrounded by water right now so we don’t anticipate the fire going anywhere.”
The plant falls along a stretch near Houston that features one of the largest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in America.
Arkema’s plant is 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 methylpropane, 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 impacted over a distance of 37 kilometres in a worse case, according to information compiled by a nonprofit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle.
But, Arkema added, it was using “multiple layers of preventative and mitigation measures” at the plant, including steps to reduce the number of substances released, and that made the worst case “very unlikely”.
Daryl Roberts, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, did not dispute that worst-case scenario but said that it assumed all the controls in place failed and strong winds blew directly toward Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“We have not modelled this exact scenario but we are very comfortable with this 1.5-mile radius,” Roberts told The Associated Press.
He added that it mostly resembled less serious scenarios that would affect a half-mile (0.8 kilometres) radius and a few dozen people.
Roberts said the vessels containing the organic peroxide are equipped with controls to slow the release of chemicals. Because of the water, he said, the chemicals will quickly vaporise, reducing the size and scope of the fire.