Rich Rowe, the president and CEO of Arkema Inc. himself, announced late Wednesday that the plant, located in Crosby, about 25 miles outside of Houston, was going to explode.
He wasn't kidding.
Just after 2 a.m. Thursday morning, two explosions went off in the plant, sending intermittent plumes of thick black smoke into the sky, as we've previously noted. Arkema officials have since stated that they expect more explosions as thousands of pounds of organic peroxide, a highly flammable and combustible chemical that must be kept cool to keep it from exploding, continue to warm up and break down
The plant, which shut down on Friday as Hurricane Harvey began to shamble ashore on the Texas Gulf Coast, took on about six feet of water after more than 40 inches of rain fell in the area over the weekend.
The company had kept a skeleton staff of 11 employees on the ground to oversee the site during the storm because the plant produces organic peroxide, a chemical that has to be kept cool or else it will break down, become combustible and explode. At first, after the plant lost power, employees were able to use backup generators to keep the thousands of pounds of organic peroxide refrigerated, but then the backup generators also failed.
At that point the company evacuated the remaining employees and reached out to state and local officials to move people out of about 300 homes located in a 1.5-mile radius around the plant.
Officials are maintaining they weren't explosions but were “chemical reactions” amounting to small pops and some subsequent smoke and fire.
The incidents early Thursday, initially characterized as "explosions" by Arkema officials, were then described as "an over-pressurization that was followed by a fire" by an Arkema spokesman, and as a "series of chemical reactions" and intermittent smoke" by the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office. The Harris County Sheriff's Office backed even further away from the word "explosion," opting to describe the incident as a couple of scheduled, non-toxic bursts.
For now, officials are working to keep everyone calm. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales said in a press conference that he doesn't want anyone thinking the chemicals or the resulting smoke is toxic, stating that the smoke is like the smoke from a campfire, at worst.
This contradicts information from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has previously warned that organic peroxide can irritate the eyes and lungs, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has stated organic peroxide can irritate the eyes and lungs and can cause liver damage.
It's unknown how much of the organic peroxide at the site has burned so far or how much of it may have leaked into the floodwaters, but there's one thing we do know — it has already made some people sick.
The company had cleared the plant as of Tuesday and there was a mandatory evacuation for the 1.5-mile area around the plant. The National Guard turned out and trucked people away from the area. So far, about 15 Harris County Sheriff's deputies, part of the law enforcement team left to secure the perimeter of the evacuation zone, had to go to the hospital for treatment after being exposed to the smoke from the explosions. Eight of them are still in the hospital, according to the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
The odds are high this won't be the only explosion. The plant is expected to be flooded and impossible to access until at least Monday and reportedly there are eight other vans still sitting on the site, each loaded with 36,000 pounds of organic peroxide in cardboard boxes. The cooling systems that were keeping these chemicals from becoming, well, explosive, are no longer working, according to Arkema, and the chemicals continue to break down and heat up. More "loud pops" can almost definitely be expected.
And that's just the situation we know about. The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office noted that officials are not monitoring the status of other plants in the area because it is the responsibility of each company to oversee what's happening on these sites. Not exactly the most comforting news, is it?