By Ben Gruber
CROSBY, Texas (Reuters) – Chemical maker Arkema SA said it expected more fires after two explosions hit its flooded plant 25 miles (40 km)northeast of Houston on Thursday, sickening more than a dozen law enforcement personnel and prompting an evacuation of the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said on Thursday afternoon it had launched an investigation into the explosions and fires at the 49-year-old chemical plant in Crosby, Texas.
In a press call with reporters and a statement on Facebook, board Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said the independent federal agency would begin its probe with requests for documents from the chemical maker and would not deploy to the site of the explosions until emergency response activities were completed and the facility was deemed safe.
Arkema, a French company, said all four of its systems to cool the organic peroxides produced at its Crosby, Texas, plant and stored onsite in refrigerated containers were expected to fail, triggering their degradation and eventually more fires.
Arkema and local officials said they believed the smoke from the blaze was non-toxic, but they urged people to stay away as the fire burns itself out,
“Any smoke is going to be an irritant,” Richard Rennard, the head of one of Arkema’s business units, told reporters near the scene. “Certainly, these things burn when they degrade, and there is the possibility that an explosion could happen.”
Shares of Arkema fell 1.9 percent in Paris trading.
Before Sutherland announced the investigation, two Democratic U.S. senators, Tom Carper of Delaware and Cory Booker of New Jersey, sent a letter to her seeking such a probe.
Rennard and Crosby Assistant Fire Chief Bob Rayall both said pops heard at the scene were the sounds of container pressure valves failing as force from the warming chemical built up.
One of nine containers with the organic peroxides had caught fire, and Rennard said Arkema expected the remaining eight to burn eventually. Company officials do not expect to have access to the site for up to five more days because of high water levels.
A joint statement from the federal Environmental Protection Agency as well as local and state officials issued Thursday afternoon said, “At this time, we are responding to a fire, not a chemical release.
“We continue to monitor smoke and air quality. … As with all smoke, people can limit the potential for adverse health effects by limiting their exposure.”