Arkema, Texas emergency officials say they must 'let it burn out'

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Harris County Sheriff's Office A view of the Houston area taken by Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez on Aug. 31.

Updated Sept. 2: A dangerous waiting game continues at a plastics catalysts plant operated by Arkema Inc. in Crosby, Texas, after fire and blasts hit the site for a second time on Sept. 1.

The site lost power Aug. 28 as Hurricane Harvey flooded the area. As a result, refrigeration units failed and were not able to keep the organic peroxides stable. The materials now are expected to explode or catch fire, company officials said.

Daryl Roberts, the firm's vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, said about 500,000 pounds of the liquid material remained at the site as of the morning of Sept. 1, but shortly after 5 p.m. Central time, fire ignited in two more containers holding the material, Arkema said in a news release.

As of mid-day on Sept. 2, the company said there had been no further incidents, but flood waters had receded "considerably" from the site.

Arkema and local government officials have evacuated a 1.5 mile radius around the plant, and were waiting for the material to catch fire.

“We think the scenario is to let that material burn out,” he said. Arkema officials will assess other options, but because of the danger, “right now we think the only plausible option is to let it burn out.”

The company repeated warnings to residents to stay away. It noted Sept. 2 that with conditions improving and airports reopening, it has dispatched a "special team" to coordinate with emergency officials and residents.

One container containing organic peroxides had a small explosion Aug. 31, sending black smoke into the surrounding area. Fifteen sheriff’s deputies were treated for eye and throat irritation.

The blasts on Sept. 1 began in one trailer, then ignited a second, local officials said. As of Sept. 2, six containers remained at the Crosby site, which has been evacuated.

Arkema officials said at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 31 that “one of the [nine] trailers at the Crosby plant containing organic peroxides caught fire early Thursday morning and burned.”

“We continue to monitor the temperature in the remaining trailers and there is evidence suggesting that other trailers will soon burn, but there have been no reports of any fires or smoke.”

The outage also could affect resin makers’ abilities to produce their materials, according to Clifford Lee, a market analyst with the Townsend Solutions consulting firm in Houston.

“Arkema is a big supplier of organic peroxides, and Crosby is a big plant,” Lee said in an Aug. 31 interview with Plastics News.

The Crosby plant makes liquid organic peroxides that are used primarily in the production of polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and acrylic resins, as well as polyester-reinforced fiberglass.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales said early Aug. 31 that the small explosion “had been expected and planned.”

“There were different organic peroxides of different grades that were released and it created a pop in the containers where they were being stored,” he said at a news briefing. “Some gray smoke initially emanated from it and it turn into black smoke.”

Company officials said the site followed its hurricane preparation plan. However, they said, “unprecedented flooding” overwhelmed the site’s primary power and two sources of emergency backup power.

As a result, Arkema lost critical refrigeration of the products. Some organic peroxides made there burn if not stored at low temperature. Organic peroxides are extremely flammable, officials said, and agreed with public officials that the best course of action was to let the fire burn itself out.

President and CEO Rich Rowe said Arkema “was prepared for what we recognized could be a worst-case scenario.”

“We had redundant contingency plans in place,” he said. “Right now, we have an unprecedented 6 feet of water at the plant.”

Local, state and federal agencies are working together to control the fire and monitor public safety, including avoiding smoke and flood waters.

In 2016, the Crosby site was cited for 10 serious violations by the Occupational Safety Health Administration. Eight of those violations were for process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals. The remaining two were for general requirements of hazardous locations.

Arkema initially was fined almost $109,000, but that was later reduced to just under $92,000.

Arkema is a global supplier of specialty chemicals and plastics, based in Colombes, France, with North American headquarters in Philadelphia. The firm posted sales of almost $9 billion in 2016.