HURRICANE HARVEY | Arkema expects chemical fire at flooded Texas plant

August 31, 2017 - 5:11 PM
flooded refinery
The Valero Houston Refinery threatened by the swelling waters of the Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain, in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS photograph

WASHINGTON – Arkema SA expects chemicals to catch fire or explode at its heavily flooded plant in Crosby, Texas in the coming days because the plant has lost power to its chemical cooling systems, a company official said on Wednesday.

The company evacuated remaining workers on Tuesday, and Harris County ordered the evacuation of residents in a 1.5-mile(2.4-km) radius of the plant that makes organic peroxides used in the production of plastic resins, polystyrene, paints and other products.

Richard Rowe, chief executive officer of Arkema’s North America unit, told reporters that chemicals on the site will catch fire and explode if they are not properly cooled.

Arkema expects that to happen within the next six days as temperatures rise. He said the company has no way to prevent that because the plant is swamped by about 6 feet (1.83 m) of water due to flooding from Harvey, which came ashore in Texas last week as a powerful Category 4 hurricane.

“Any fire will probably resemble a large gasoline fire. The fire will be explosive and intense,” Rowe said in a late Wednesday statement. He added that the black smoke produced would irritate the skin, eyes and lungs.

The company said it opted not to move chemicals before the storm but made extensive preparations. The plant is 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Houston.

There is a “small possibility” that the peroxide could release into the flood waters without igniting, and in that case would break down and either dissipate in the water or evaporate, he said. However, the fire is the most likely outcome.

Rowe did not disclose the volume of chemicals on the site and said it was speculative to predict how much damage the plant could sustain. He said a fire would not pose any “long-term harm or impact.”

The plant has been without electric service since Sunday. The plant lost refrigeration when backup generators were flooded, and workers transferred products from warehouses into diesel-powered refrigerated containers.

The company said some refrigeration of back-up containers has been compromised because of high water levels, and the company is monitoring temperature levels remotely.

The Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily barred flights near the plant because of the risk of fire or explosion.