French chemical company confirms two Texas explosions

A helicopter hovers above the Houston skyline as sunlight breaks through storm clouds from Tropical Storm Harvey in Texas, U.S. August 29, 2017
A helicopter hovers above the Houston skyline as sunlight breaks through storm clouds from Tropical Storm Harvey in Texas, U.S. August 29, 2017 REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Local emergency officials on Thursday reported two explosions at a flooded chemical plant in the Texas town of Crosby, its operators Arkema Inc said.


"At approximately 2 am (7:00 GMT) we were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of two explosions and black smoke coming from the Arkema Inc plant in Crosby, Texas," the company statement said.

The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office in a later tweet confirmed "a series of chemical reactions at the ArkemaInc Crosby facility."

"There has been intermittent smoke, please stay clear of the area."

As a precautionary measure officials had already ordered the evacuation of an area within 1.5 miles (three kilometers) of the organic peroxides plant, which operators had said was at risk of exploding due to a "critical issue" triggered by storm Harvey's torrential rains.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office said one deputy had been taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes from the plant, with nine others driving themselves there "as precaution."

In a later tweet the sheriff's office said Arkema officials had said "the smoke inhaled by 10 deputies near plant in Crosby is beloved to be a non-toxic irritant."

But the company also released a statement saying "exposure to organic peroxides may cause eye, skin and/or respiratory irritation. The smoke may also contain organic peroxide degradation products, including hydrocarbons and alcohols."

The company said those products could cause eye, skin or respiratory irritation as well as nausea, drowsiness or dizziness, and urged residents within the 1.5-mile evacuation area to turn off their air conditioners to avoid potential smoke exposure.

 'A few pops'

The chemical plant makes compounds with many commercial uses, including plastics, pharmaceuticals and construction materials -- compounds that can combust if not cooled to the proper temperatures.

"Organic peroxides are extremely flammable and, as agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out," Arkema said.

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

Neither Harris County nor Arkema said whether the smoke rising from the chemical plant was toxic to those in the vicinity.

Crosby lies about 25 miles northeast of Houston.

Local resident John Villarreal, 45, told AFP he had left his home -- situated about a mile from the facility -- to survey flooding in the neighborhood when he saw "a lot of smoke, and you could see the flames in the smoke."

"We could hear a few pops," he said. "I would call it like an aerosol can in a fire type deal."

Villarreal -- who spent five years working at the plant making organic peroxide approximately two decades ago -- said he and many neighbors did not evacuate the area because "there was really no clear direction" from authorities concerning potential risks of staying.

He also said he wanted to stay in order to assist elderly neighbors in the event of emergency.

Villarreal is currently sheltering 10 family members and neighbors whose homes were flooded during Harvey's historic onslaught that turned rivers into roads throughout Houston and the surrounding region.

"We're all invested heavily in this area so we're doing the best we can to not let the worst happen," Villarreal said.


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