Hurricane Harvey sparks chemical plant fire in Texas

Woes of flood-hit Texans were compounded this week when explosions and a plume of black smoke were reported at a chemical plant disabled by floodwater in Crosby, Harris County, 24 miles northeast of Houston.

The area around the French manufacturer Arkema’s plant was evacuated in the early hours of 31 August as a precaution and 15 police deputies were assessed in a nearby hospital after being exposed to the smoke. They were released later the same day.

Arkema said the plant, which makes organic peroxides for use in a range of plastics, had been sitting in "an unprecedented 6 feet of water" due to heavy rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, which has so far killed 33 people in eastern Texas since it touched down at Corpus Christi on 25 August.

The chemicals must be stored at low temperatures. When high water disabled the plant’s primary and back-up power supplies, the "extremely flammable" materials began to degrade and caught fire. Arkema said more explosions may occur.

There has been some confusion over the potential health effects of the smoke. In a statement Arkema said exposure to organic peroxides may cause "eye, skin and/or respiratory irritation".

But federal authorities used stronger language. On 31 August Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at a briefing that the plume was "incredibly dangerous".

For the moment, however, there is little Arkema or Texas authorities can do about the plant, as it is inaccessible except by boat.

Arkema shut the plant down before Harvey struck on Friday August 25. It says it left a small "ride-out" crew on site to address situations that might arise during the storm.

But the site lost primary power early Sunday morning, and additional back-up generators subsequently were inundated by water. On Monday, sensitive chemicals were transferred to eight diesel-powered refrigerated containers, where they still are.

The ride-out crew was evacuated on Tuesday 29 August. Now, most of the refrigeration units have failed due to flooding, Arkema said.

Image: Flood and fire – not the Arkema plant – in Harris County, Texas (Harris County Sheriff’s Office Twitter page)

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