'Pops,' followed by black smoke and fire, reported at storm-crippled Texas chemical plant

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CROSBY, Texas — The operators of a chemical plant left without power by floodwaters said Thursday that possible explosions have been reported at the facility, and they warned that more problems could occur as rising temperatures make the highly flammable compounds inside volatile and dangerous.

Arkema, the French chemicals group that runs the plant, said in a statement that it was notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center “of two explosions and black smoke” coming from the facility, which was under about six feet of water from the relentless rains unleashed by Harvey.

Local authorities later said there weren’t explosions at the facility, but rather “pops” followed by smoke and fire. But Arkema urged residents to stay clear of a temporary evacuation zone set up Wednesday, and said in its statement that “a threat of additional explosion remains.”

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office reported “a series of chemical reactions” and “intermittent smoke” at the facility, about 25 miles northeast of Houston.

Bob Royall, assistant chief for emergency operations for the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, said there were “small container ruptures that may have a sound” — like “a series of pops.”

“I don’t want the public thinking these are massive explosions,” Royall told reporters.

“I want to be very clear: It was not an explosion,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.

He added: “It is not anything toxic; it is not anything that we feel is a danger to the community at all.”

The plant in Crosby manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used in everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials such as counter tops and pipes.

A variety of federal agencies have warned about the dangers of organic peroxides. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that “contact of organic peroxides with the eyes should be avoided. Some organic peroxides will cause serious injury to the cornea, even after brief contact, or will be corrosive to the skin.”

It added that “many organic peroxides also burn vigorously.”

An earlier study done for the Environmental Protection Agency found that organic peroxides are skin and eye irritants and could also cause liver damage.

Smoke from the plant left at least one sheriff’s deputy in need of medical treatment. A total of 15 deputies were evaluated by medical teams as a precaution, and most were later released from the hospital after experiencing what Gonzalez, the sheriff, referred to as respiratory irritation. “We believe the smoke is a non-toxic irritant,” he said.

The incident was reported between midnight and 1 a.m. on Thursday, and local authorities and Arkema officials had warned earlier that such problems were likely.

The material at the plant must remain cold — otherwise it can combust. “The material naturally degrades and some types can be unstable unless refrigerated,” Arkema explained.

The facility’s coolant system and inundated backup power generators failed, according to the company. Primary power at the plant went out on Sunday, and two sources of emergency backup power were lost shortly thereafter.

At that point, Richard Rowe, chief executive of Arkema’s North American unit, warned that trouble was likely.

“We have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire,” Rowe said in a statement Wednesday. “The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it. We have evacuated our personnel for their own safety. The federal, state and local authorities were contacted a few days ago, and we are working very closely with them to manage this matter. They have ordered the surrounding community to be evacuated, too.”

In the statement, Rowe apologized “to everyone impacted by our situation.”

A mandatory evacuation zone was established for a 1.5-mile radius Wednesday as the last remaining workers at the facility attempted to resolve the problem. Police cruisers and SUVs sealed off access to the plant on Highway 90, which connects Houston and Beaumont. Parts of the highway nearby were underwater.

A continuous flow of trucks, many hauling boats to participate in flood rescue efforts, approached the police barricade near the facility Wednesday afternoon only to be turned away as Crosby Volunteer Fire Department trucks crisscrossed the highway cut-through roads.

The facility, the company noted, “is in a rural area with no hospitals, schools, correctional facilities or recreational areas or industrial/commercial areas in the vicinity.” Arkema said the plant, which employs 57 people, “has never experienced flooding of this magnitude before.”

Ahead of Harvey’s arrival, “the plant made extensive preparations,” bringing extra backup generators to the facility, along with diesel-powered refrigerated tank trailers, Arkema said. But the generators were inundated by water and failed. At that point, the company said, “temperature-sensitive products” were transferred into the diesel-powered refrigerated containers.

Still, the company said Wednesday, “the most likely outcome is that, anytime between now and the next few days, the low-temperature peroxide in unrefrigerated trailers will degrade and catch fire. There is a small possibility that the organic peroxide will release into the floodwaters but will not ignite and burn. … In the alternate, there could be a combination event involving fire and environmental release. Any fire will probably resemble a large gasoline fire. The fire will be explosive and intense. Smoke will be released into the atmosphere and dissipate. People should remain clear of the area.”

The Associated Press reported that Arkema was previously required “to develop and submit a risk management plan to the Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, 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 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case scenario, 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 amount of substances released, and that made the worst case ‘very unlikely.’”

On Wednesday, James and Deborah Hyer sat, frustrated, in a white pickup truck with a plant water tower in view. They were waiting with their three young children for the police to clear out so they could return to their home in Dayton, about 10 miles north of the barricade.

They were out of milk and water, with local stores either closed or cleaned out of supplies.

Their newly purchased double-wide trailer on top of a hill escaped much of the floodwaters, Deborah Hyer said, but some of their friends living at the bottom experienced complete devastation.

“They lost everything,” she said. One friend of hers, a single mother of five children, lived in a house on 17-foot stilts, but the water rose so high she had to evacuate, she said.

In tiny Kenefick to the northeast, neighborhoods built on the floodplains and banks of the Trinity River were destroyed, and relatives of friends who tried to evacuate were still missing.

As in other areas like Houston and its western suburb of Katy, residents remarked on the quick response of volunteers with fishing boats fanning out as self-deputized rescue units.

“Some authorities are helping, but civilians like the Cajun Navy are helping the most,” James Hyer said.

A Crosby Volunteer Fire Department truck with flashing lights stopped as another man flagged him down to get updates on alternate routes to Dayton.

“We have nowhere to go,” James Hyer pleaded to the firefighter.

“I’d go away from here,” the firefighter responded, though he conceded he did not know which nearby back roads were flooded or, like Highway 90, sealed by police. The Hyer family, resigned, turned around with their backs to Dayton.

Cleveland Walters Jr., who also lives in Dayton, waited more than an hour outside his black GMC pickup to get home, where his wife and elderly 92-year old father needed to be cared for, he said.

“Dayton is where all my medicine is,” he said, ticking off the medical issues stemming from Agent Orange he said he was exposed to while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Guam during the final years of the Vietnam War.

The runways for B-52 Stratofortress bombers taking off were choked with jungles, and the defoliant sprayed around his tent sparked skin and gastrointestinal problems. He takes about 30 pills a day, he said, and had only a limited supply with him as he sat on Highway 90.

But Walters wasn’t overly concerned about the plant’s reported impending explosion, after working in the oil industry for many years after his service.

“I drive by it about every day. It is what it is,” he said. He left soon after, and like the Hyer family, put more distance between himself and Dayton as rescue vehicles roared to Beaumont.

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