By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
Harvey, now downgraded to a tropical depression, has finally left the Lone Star State. But the massive storm left Texas not with a whimper, but with a series of bangs.
A fire and several explosions at a flooded chemical plant in Crosby early Thursday sent plumes of black smoke into the air and sent 15 sheriff’s deputies to the hospital, the Houston Chronicle reports. Officials warn that more explosions can be expected.
Within two hours of the explosions, Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies were dispatched to block off roads in the area. Firefighters were also quickly on the scene.
Fifteen deputies were taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes and getting smoke in their eyes. At least nine of those deputies drove themselves to the emergency room as a precaution, said Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Floodwater Caused Failure of Chemical Plant's Cooling Systems
The Arkema plant houses organic peroxides, volatile chemicals that must be kept refrigerated to prevent them from exploding. The organic peroxides were stored in nine 18-wheeler box vans that hold multiple 15-pound cardboard containers of the chemicals. Each van contains 36,000 pounds of the organic peroxides.
Torrential rains from Harvey on Monday flooded the plant, located 25 miles northeast of downtown Houston. The floodwater knocked out the plant’s regular power source and backup generators used for cooling the chemicals, causing the contents of the first van to explode.
Arkema officials first reported that two of the nine vans exploded. But on Wednesday morning, Assistant Chief Bob Royall of the Harris County Fire Marshall’s Office said the multiple explosions occurred in just one van.
“We fully expect that the eight other containers will do the same thing,” said Richard Rennard, who spoke at a news conference Thursday morning on behalf of Arkema. "They will burn with intensity until the fuel is consumed, and then they will die down," he added.
Employees and Nearby Residents Were Safely Evacuated
All employees of the chemical plant were evacuated from the area by late Tuesday. Residents from about 300 nearby homes were also ordered to evacuate. The Federal Aviation Administration has barred flights over the area.
The company agreed with local authorities that, because of the volatile chemicals involved, the best course of action is to let the fires burn themselves out.
Officials Disagree on Level of Smoke’s Toxicity
Officials at the news conference were at odds over whether the smoke from the explosions was harmful to humans.
Rennard said health effects between the smoke at the facility and smoke of a campfire were relative. “They're noxious, certainly,” he acknowledged. “If you breathe in the smoke, it's going to irritate your lungs.”
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez likened the smoke to that from a barbecue. Moments later, Royall refused to make a similar comparison, instead calling it “smoke, with carbon particles in it.”