Officials monitoring chemical plant after explosion, fire

HOUSTON (AP) — At least 2 tons of highly unstable chemicals used in such products as plastics and paint exploded and burned at a flood-crippled plant near Houston, sending up a plume of acrid black smoke that stung the eyes and lungs.

The blaze that began early Thursday at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant burned out around midday, but emergency crews continued to hold back because of the danger that eight other trailers containing the same compound could blow, too.

No serious injuries were reported. But the blast added a new hazard to Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath and raised questions about the adequacy of the company’s master plan to protect the public in the event of an emergency in the flood-prone Houston metropolitan area of 5.6 million people.

“This should be a wake-up call (for) all kinds of plants that are storing and converting reactive chemicals in areas which have high population densities,” said Nicholas Ashford, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert.

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The Environmental Protection Agency and Texas environmental regulators called the health risks minimal in Crosby but urged residents downwind to stay indoors with windows closed to avoid inhaling the smoke.

Arkema had warned earlier in the week that an explosion of organic peroxides stored at the plant was imminent because Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed the backup generators and knocked out the refrigeration necessary to keep the compounds from degrading and catching fire.

All employees had been pulled from the plant before the blast, and up to 5,000 people living within 1½ miles had been warned to evacuate on Tuesday.

Two explosions in the middle of the night blew open a trailer containing the chemicals, lighting up the sky with 30- to 40-foot (9- to 12-meter) flames in the small farm and ranching community of Crosby, 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Houston, authorities said. Aerial footage showed a trailer carcass, its sides melted, burning in a flooded lot.

The Texas environmental agency called the smoke “especially acrid and irritating” and said it can impair breathing and inflame the eyes, nose and throat.

Fifteen sheriff’s deputies complained of respiratory irritation. They were examined at a hospital and released.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, launched an investigation into the accident.

The plant is along a corridor near Houston that…

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