Early Thursday, as the Houston area begins its recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, a series of explosions at a nearby chemical plant introduced new public health hazards to an already dangerous situation in the nation’s fourth largest city. The explosions occurred at the plant in nearby Crosby, Texas, when flooding caused failures in the plant’s main electrical system and backups, shutting down refrigeration systems that were vital to keeping volatile chemicals stable. Residents living nearby were evacuated and 15 public safety officers received treatment at a local hospital after inhaling smoke from the resulting chemical fires.
Similar problems in area chemical plants also led to the release of contaminants, but the Crosby plant, owned by the French chemical company Arkema, is considered one of the most hazardous in the state.
Arkema has warned that still more explosions are expected.
The incident is likely to call attention whether plants like Arkema’s are properly regulated by state and federal authorities. The company decided to shut down the plant, 30 miles northeast of Houston, as a precaution last week when it became clear how devastating Hurricane Harvey could become. Almost all of the plant’s 60 workers went home on Friday, with a small crew of 11 staying behind. On Sunday, flooding shut down the plant’s main electrical power as well as backup generators. The chemicals produced by the plant need to be kept cold to avoid becoming unstable and explosive. The plant’s cold storage warehouses stopped functioning when power was lost. As a last resort effort, workers at the plant transferred chemicals to refrigerated trailers on the property. Unfortunately, all but one of the trailer’s refrigeration units eventually failed.
The remaining workers left the plant Tuesday, with no way to prevent the coming explosions. Arkema officials have said that while they prepared for a major storm, they were not ready for the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey.
According to Arkema executive Richard Rennard, speaking at a news conference Thursday:
“Certainly we didn’t anticipate having six feet of water in our plant. And this is really the issue that led to the incident we are experiencing now.”
Contradictory advice from officials have now left residents unsure of whether the plant is producing toxic smoke. According to Rennard, “The smoke is noxious. Toxicity is a relative thing.”
Alongside other chemical companies, Arkema fought Obama-era regulations to improve safety measures at chemical facilities nationwide.
Residents within a mile and a half radius remain under a mandatory evacuation order.