Crosby Ammonia Plant in Danger of Exploding As Harvey Fallout Continues [UPDATED]

Houston is drying out, but the fallout from Harvey isn't over yet.
Houston is drying out, but the fallout from Harvey isn't over yet. Photo by Doogie Roux

Updated 5:40 a.m. August 31, 2017:
Arkema officials say explosions occurred at the Crosby plant around 2 a.m. Thursday.

At approximately 2 a.m. CDT, 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. Local officials had previously established an evacuation zone in an area 1.5 miles from our plant, based on their assessment of the situation.

We continue to work closely with federal, state and local authorities to manage the situation.

As we communicated in recent days, our site followed its hurricane preparation plan in advance of the recent hurricane and we had redundant contingency plans in place. However, unprecedented flooding overwhelmed our primary power and two sources of emergency backup power. As a result, we lost critical refrigeration of the products on site. Some of our organic peroxides products burn if not stored at low temperature.

We have been working closely with public officials to manage the implications of this situation, and have communicated with the public the potential for product to explode and cause an intense fire. Organic peroxides are extremely flammable and, as agreed with public officials, the best course of action is to let the fire burn itself out.

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.

Organic peroxides are a family of compounds that are used in a wide range of applications, such as making pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

Updated 9:29 p.m. August 30, 2017: Arkema officials just released this statement:

Arkema is dealing with a critical issue at our Crosby, Texas facility.

Our Crosby facility makes organic peroxides that may burn if not stored at low temperature. As a result of factors related to Hurricane Harvey, we have lost critical refrigeration of the materials on site that could explode and cause a subsequent intense fire. The products are stored in multiple locations throughout the site, each one of which presents the potential for an incident.

We have worked closely with federal, state and local authorities, and have shared a great deal of information with them. Based on this, they have established an area that extends out 1.5 miles from our plant, and they have worked to move people out of that area.

The situation at our plant continues to be extremely serious, and public officials continue to reinforce the perimeter around our plant. We urge local residents to stay out of the area until public officials communicate that it is safe. We apologize to all local residents who are impacted. 

Updated 5:05 p.m. August 30, 2017: It now looks likely there will be a fire or explosion at the Arkema ammonia plant in Crosby, according to officials.

The plant is currently submerged in water and Rich Rowe, Arkema Inc.'s president and CEO, told the Texas Tribune that the organic peroxide used in the company manufacturing process has begun to heat up. With the flooding in the area, it will not be possible for employees to enter the facility to try to prevent a fire or explosion, and by the time employees do get back inside, Rowe says, the chemicals are certain to degrade and catch fire or explode.

The company has already evacuated all employees and a 1.5-mile radius around the plant has also been cleared to assure that no one will be harmed if the plant does explode. However, Rowe says that any such incident will not be felt beyond the boundaries of the plant, and insists to the Tribune that the company is just being "conservative."
click to enlarge Houston is drying out, but the fallout from Harvey isn't over yet. - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Houston is drying out, but the fallout from Harvey isn't over yet.
Photo by Doogie Roux

Original story:

Houston is finally beginning to dry out from Harvey, the hurricane that dumped more than 9 trillion gallons of water on Houston and devastated much of the central Texas Gulf Coast, but the fallout from the storm is far from over as chemical plants and other industrial facilities in the area continue to deal with the damage they received.

For instance, right now there's an ammonia plant that could blow up.

The plant, located in Crosby, Texas, roughly 25 miles outside of Houston, was damaged by the storm to the point that the company that owns the plant, Arkema Inc., evacuated its workers on Tuesday and warned that there is a real danger of the plant exploding, news that prompted a mandatory evacuation from the area surrounding the plant.

Sure, reports continue to come out of other industrial facilities damaged by Harvey, as we've noted, but none of those situations have the same immediate potential to go as horribly wrong as the problem at the site owned by French industrial behemoth Arkema SA.

The plant manufactures organic peroxides and ammonia, key ingredients in biodegradable herbicides, pesticides and animal feed supplements. On Friday, when it became clear Harvey was heading toward the area, the plant was closed, with a skeleton staff of 11 employees left in place to oversee things. More than 40 inches of rain fell during the storm and the plant has been without power since Sunday, but on Tuesday the situation became dire when even the emergency generators failed.

The reason this was such a big deal is that the primary challenge to getting the Arkema plant through the storm safely has been ensuring the products, which are supposed to be stored at very low temperatures, keep cool.

When the site lost power and thus the refrigeration of its cold-storage warehouses, employees transferred products to diesel-powered refrigerator containers. But then the generators supplying that cooling were compromised when the floodwaters rose up even higher, to levels that are unprecedented in Crosby, according to a company release.

Once the power was gone, all bets were off. The company ordered an evacuation, and soon enough the National Guard was on the ground moving people out of the surrounding area in trucks. Why? Because there was a very good chance the products could ignite and explode.

Similar chemicals actually caught fire at the now infamous fertilizer plant in West, and the explosion left the site and the surrounding town looking like a bomb had been dropped on them. In other words, it makes sense that Arkema and local, state and federal officials didn't fool around once the situation became clear. (We've asked Arkema for an update on the plant but haven't heard back yet. We'll share that information as soon as we do.)

Right now, people have moved away from the area, but the plant itself is apparently still in jeopardy. Arkema is working with the Department of Homeland Security and state officials and has set up a command post to keep guard over the site. The company is continuing to monitor the temperatures of the refrigerated chemicals remotely, but says there's little it can do to change the situation until the floodwaters recede.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray