Texas chemical plant owners 'fully expect' more fires
CROSBY, USA (4th UPDATE) – More fires are expected to ignite at a flooded chemical plant northeast of Houston, its operators said on Thursday, August 31, after a series of overnight explosions sent a plume of toxic smoke spewing from the site.
Richard Rennard, a senior executive with French group Arkema, encouraged anyone who has been exposed to the smoke, which irritates the eyes and lungs, to seek medical advice.
However Rennard, who is Arkema's president of acrylic monomers, also stressed: "It's not a chemical release that's happening. I want to be clear about that. What we have is a fire."
The fire was triggered inside a container after the organic peroxides it contained could no longer be refrigerated due to flooding caused by storm Harvey that cut off electricity and flooded emergency generators.
The chemical plant makes compounds with many commercial uses, including plastics, pharmaceuticals and construction materials – compounds that can combust if not cooled to the proper temperatures.
"We're anticipating the remaining 8 containers that have not yet started to have product degrade in them, for that to start to happen," Rennard told reporters, cautioning it was unclear when the containers would burn.
"We fully expect that the other eight containers will do the same thing."
The company has said the organic peroxides could cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation as well as nausea, drowsiness or dizziness, and urged residents within the 1.5-mile evacuation area to turn off their air conditioners to avoid possible smoke exposure.
"The smoke is noxious. Toxicity is a relative thing," Rennard said, declining to elaborate.
Bob Royall, assistant chief of emergency operations for the Harris County fire marshal, cited the sheriff as saying the smoke from the organic chemicals was similar to a camp fire, but refused to further press the comparison.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long earlier said the plume of fumes from the plant was "incredibly dangerous."
'A few pops'
Crosby lies about 25 miles northeast of Houston.
Local resident John Villarreal, 45, told the Agence France-Presse he had left his home – situated about a mile from the facility – to survey flooding in the neighborhood when he saw "a lot of smoke, and you could see the flames in the smoke."
"We could hear a few pops," he said. "I would call it like an aerosol can in a fire type deal."
Villarreal – who spent five years working at the plant making organic peroxide approximately two decades ago – said he and many neighbors did not evacuate the area because "there was really no clear direction" from authorities concerning potential risks of staying.
He also said he wanted to stay in order to assist elderly neighbors in the event of emergency.
Villarreal is currently sheltering 10 family members and neighbors whose homes were flooded during Harvey's historic onslaught that turned rivers into roads throughout Houston and the surrounding region.
"We're all invested heavily in this area so we're doing the best we can to not let the worst happen," Villarreal said. – Rappler.com