Chemicals ignite at flooded plant in Texas as Harvey’s devastation lingers – Washington Post

 In U.S.
Firefighters in west Houston had to wade and swim through chest deep floodwater to rescue a family inside burning house. But then, things got more dramatic. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

CROSBY, Tex. — The remnants of Hurricane Harvey carried its wrath up the Mississippi Delta on Thursday, but not before hammering the Gulf Coast with more punishing cloudbursts and growing threats that included reports of “pops” and “chemical reactions” at a crippled chemical plant and the collapse of the drinking water system in a Texas city.

Authorities warned of the danger posed by the plant in Crosby, about 30 miles northeast of Houston. The French company operating the plant said explosions were possible, and William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called the potential for a chemical plume “incredibly dangerous.”

Still, officials offered differing accounts regarding what occurred at the Crosby plant, which makes organic peroxides for use in items such as counter tops and pipes. The plant’s operators, which had earlier Thursday reported explosions, later said they believe at least one valve “popped” there, though they noted it was impossible to know for sure since all employees had left the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that it dispatched personnel to the scene and did not immediately detect issues regarding toxic material.

“EPA has emergency response personnel on the scene and the agency is currently reviewing data received from an aircraft that surveyed the scene early this morning,” Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said in a statement. “This information indicates that there are no concentrations of concern for toxic materials reported at this time.”

As attention focused on the chemical plant, which Thursday sat under about 6 feet of water following Harvey’s relentless rains, other areas battered by the storm awoke to lingering flooding. The storm’s fury was far from over to the east and beyond, as flash flood watches were posted as far away as southern Ohio. The National Weather Service said 4 inches of rain was expected to soak parts of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee with up to 10 inches possible in some isolated areas in western Tennessee.

In Crosby, the chemical plant’s operators, citing local officials, initially said two blasts rocked the facility after it was rendered powerless by floodwaters.

“We were notified by the Harris County Emergency Operations Center of two explosions and black smoke coming from the” plant, the company, Arkema, said in its initial statement.

Richard Rennard of Arkema chemical plant told reporters in Crosby, Tex., “this isn’t a chemical release. What we have is a fire,” on Aug. 31. (Reuters)

Other accounts soon followed. The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office reported “a series of chemical reactions” and “intermittent smoke” at the facility; a county official said there weren’t “massive explosions,” and instead referred to the reactions as “pops” followed by fire.

Still, the operators Arkema warned that there was still a potential for more danger. “A threat of additional explosion remains,” said the statement.

Authorities on Wednesday set up an evacuation zone in a 1.5-mile radius from the plant, though the risks could also could be carried by the winds.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that one deputy was hospitalized after inhaling fumes from the plant, while several others sought medical care as a precaution. Some were still being evacuated at a local hospital, the sheriff’s office said, while others had been released.

The Crosby plant manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used in everything from pharmaceuticals to construction materials. But the stores must remain cold otherwise it can combust.

A variety of federal agencies have warned about the dangers of organic peroxides the Crosby plant produces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that “contact of organic peroxides with the eyes should be avoided. Some organic peroxides will cause serious injury to the cornea, even after brief contact, or will be corrosive to the skin.”  It added that “many organic peroxides also burn vigorously.”

An earlier study done for the EPA found that organic peroxides are skin and eye irritants and could also cause liver damage.

Water will dilute the chemicals in the plant, but also make them difficult to contain; just as the plant was unable to keep water from flowing in, it will have trouble controlling water flowing out.

An industry safety guide notes that fire or explosion will release a variety of chemicals, including carbon dioxide, as well as flammable vapors including methane or acetone. This could accelerate the decomposition of the chemicals. The guide said that water is “usually the agent of choice to fight fire,” though warm water could accelerate the breakdown, and ignition, of the organic peroxides.

Elsewhere in Texas, seemingly endless water continued to create other issues. In the city of Beaumont, near the Louisiana border, the water system pumps failed after being swamped by spillover from the swollen Neches River. City officials said in a statement that a secondary water source from nearby wells was also lost.

To the east — in the town of Orange, Tex. — the water rose so high and so fast that people had to rush from their homes.

“It was unbelievable,” said Robin Clark, who was ferried, along with her mother and three dogs, out of her home on a volunteer’s boat.

Dozens of rescued residents stood in a pelting rain outside a Market Basket supermarket waiting for what was next.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Keeleigh Amodeo, 15, who was waiting with her sister and mother.

She and others had been told they would be getting on a bus and be taken to a shelter. Where? No one knew. And the buses had failed to show yet. Several people noted that another shelter in town had to be evacuated after it was flooded.

Leonard Teal, however, refused to evacuate his flooded home in Orange. The reason: Someone had to keep watch over all the pets abandoned by neighbors as they fled the flooding.

“It’s shocking but I’ve got several dogs and cats here,” said Teal, whose was huddled with animals on the second floor of his home. He said he would keep the animals for as long as possible.

Administrator Brock Long says the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still assessing the full scale of the impact of the Crosby, Tex., chemical plant explosion. (The Washington Post)

Orange and other small Texas communities were rendered islands as Harvey dumped record amounts of rain. Interstate 10, which runs close by, was closed to everyone but volunteers in pickup trucks with boats and emergency personnel. Two to three feet of water covered parts of the interstate, while the storm’s death toll had risen to at least 37 people and was expected to increase.

Particularly hard-hit was the coastal city of Port Arthur, which local officials said is now largely underwater. Officials estimated that water had entered a third of the city’s buildings.

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