Black smoke, flames shoot up from Texas chemical plant

HOUSTON (AP) — Thick black smoke and towering orange flames shot up Friday from a flooded Houston-area chemical plant after two trailers of highly unstable compounds blew up a day earlier after losing refrigeration.

It was the second day that flames and smoke could be seen at the Arkema plant in Crosby. Arkema says Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed its backup generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the organic peroxides from degrading and catching fire. Arkema executive Richard Rennard said two containers caught fire Friday evening, and that the company has six more that it expects will eventually catch fire.

The Environmental Protection Agency and local officials said an analysis of the smoke that came from the plant early Thursday showed no reason for alarm. No serious injuries were reported. EPA spokesman David Gray said the agency was sending its surveillance aircraft through the area again Friday night to monitor any airborne toxic chemicals and “will have information shortly.”

A 1½ mile buffer (2.4 kilometers) around the plant was established Tuesday when Arkema Inc. warned that chemicals kept there could explode. Employees had been pulled, and up to 5,000 people living nearby were warned to evacuate. Officials remain comfortable with the size of the buffer, Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Fire Marshal Office, said Friday evening.

Arkema spokeswoman Janet Smith reiterated statements executives made earlier Friday that the safest course of action is to simply “let these fires happen and let them burn out.”

Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed backup generators and cut off the refrigeration necessary to keep the organic peroxides, used in such products as plastics and paints, from degrading and catching fire.

Arkema officials did not directly notify local emergency managers of the generator failure, Moreno said.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Arkema President and CEO Rich Rowe apologized and said he was sending a team of employees to Crosby to figure out how best to assist locals.

“I realize this is not a situation that we can help remedy overnight,” he said.

Early Thursday, two blasts blew open a trailer containing at least 2 tons of material, sending up a plume of black smoke and flames 30- to 40-foot (9- to 12-meter) high in the tiny town of Crosby, about a half-hour from Houston, authorities said. The Texas environmental agency called the smoke “especially acrid and irritating” and said it can impair…

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