Small explosions, fire hit flooded chemical plant near Houston

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Two small explosions have caused a fire at a flooded chemical plant in Crosby, a community about 25 miles (40 km) northeast of downtown Houston, officials say. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were treated at a local hospital after inhaling a non-toxic irritant.

The incident happened just before 1 a.m. CT on Thursday when a chemical reaction caused two small explosions, or “pops” as described by local officials, inside a vehicle at the Arkema plant in Crosby. A fire broke out and black smoke was seen billowing from the site.

Bob Royall, the assistant chief at the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, said the explosions occurred in an 18-wheeler box van in which containers of highly combustible organic peroxides were stored. Eight other vehicles with similar containers have so far not been affected.

Emergency workers said flames were visible at the scene and black smoke was billowing into the sky. Arkema said it had agreed with local officials that the best course of action would be to let the fire burn itself out.

At least 15 sheriff’s deputies who inhaled fumes from the plant were taken to hospital as a precaution, including a sheriff’s deputy who was transported by ambulance. All of the deputies are believed to have been affected by a non-toxic irritant and eight of them were released within hours.

All workers at the site had previously been evacuated and an evacuation zone of 1.5 mile (2.4 km) was established around the plant. It is unclear if everyone in the evacuation zone had indeed evacuated, but authorities said they do not believe there is a health risk to the wider community.

“We want local residents to be aware that product is stored in multiple locations on the site, and a threat of additional explosions remains,” Arkema said in a statement. “Please do not return to the area within the evacuation zone until local emergency response authorities announce it is safe to do so.”

The explosions came just hours after Arkema concluded that explosions and an “intense fire” could not be prevented, noting that the plant had been flooded with 6 feet (1.8 meter) of water. Both primary power and two sources of emergency backup power had failed.

“As a result, we have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could now explode and cause a subsequent intense fire,” the company said in a statement late Wednesday. “The high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent it.”

The Arkema plant manufactures highly combustible organic peroxides, a family of compounds that are used in a wide range of applications, such as making pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

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